Wyoming Bishop Busted?

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by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 26, 2020   

Local police apply pressure

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A Wyoming district attorney is now reconsidering the pursuit of criminal charges against retired Cheyenne bishop Joseph Hart.

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Officer David Inman

Natrona County DA Dan Itzen raised eyebrows two weeks ago when he announced he would not charge Hart with child sexual abuse that authorities allege spanned decades. Cheyenne Police Department officials who conducted a two-year investigation of Hart told media on Friday, however, that Itzen is currently reconsidering their recommendation to prosecute Hart.

Cheyenne police spokesman David Inman said investigators who felt "very strongly" about pursuing charges against Hart, met with Itzen on Friday to discuss why he had closed the case.

"Some of the stuff we didn't agree with," related Inman. "We wanted clarification."

Itzen originally stated that he closed the case against Hart owing to insufficient evidence. According to Inman, the reason Itzen gave to Cheyenne police on Friday for not having found sufficient evidence was that he had misunderstood various police files that detailed allegations against Hart.

"While talking about [Itzen's declining to press charges], this new information came to light. So basically it was, 'Oh I didn't know this and this is what you meant by this and this,'" recalled Itzen. "That's what's causing the case to come back to life."

While talking about [Itzen's declining to press charges], this new information came to light.

It's unclear why Itzen has just recently discovered his misunderstanding a full 10 days after his office told one of Hart's alleged victims that his office was dropping the case. His admission also comes some nine months after Cheyenne police had recommended that Itzen's office charge Hart.

'Botched' Investigation

The Natrona County DA's office is handling the case, even though the alleged incidents of abuse of Wyoming minors took place in Cheyenne, which is in Laramie County. The reason for this is a conflict of interest stemming from the former botched investigation by officials in Laramie County.

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Rebecca Randles

Most of Hart's alleged victims were accosted by him before being he became a bishop in Wyoming. Two years after being named auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne in 1977, however, Hart allegedly abused still more young men. Six of these have since come forward to accuse him.

Hart ended a 23-year term as Cheyenne's bishop by retiring in 2001 at the age of 70, five years before the mandatory retirement age. Allegations of Hart abusing boys as far back as 1963 while still a priest in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were first reported to Kansas City diocesan officials as early as 1989.

Hart has been accused by nearly 20 men who were all minors at the time of the alleged abuse. Three instances date back from the 1960s to the early 1970s. According to Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles, Hart assaulted some of the young men between 1972 and 1976 while on road trips from Missouri to Wyoming.

Jack Smith, a spokesman for the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, described tactics used by Hart when abusing boys in Missouri. He noted that Hart would allegedly befriend a family and then abuse multiple boys in that family. 

Smith commented, "That's been a big deal with Bp. Hart because his pattern was to abuse brothers, so a whole family was affected by the abuse that he inflicted on these young men."


 

After additional accusations surfaced in 1992, Hart volunteered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation. After a month-long visit, the analysis determined that Hart "does not appear to be a threat to himself or others on any level." He then resumed his duties as Cheyenne's bishop.

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Bp. Steven Biegler

Hart's name became public only in 2002 after another accuser came forward alleging he was abused by Hart in 1977 while Hart was auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne. Wyoming justice officials at that time cleared Hart of wrongdoing, however, saying they had found "no evidence to support the allegations."

Between 2008 and 2014, however, the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese quietly settled at least half a dozen lawsuits related to Hart. These payouts were concluded without the diocese mentioning the names of any of the credibly accused clergy, including Hart.

New Bishop, New Investigations

In 2017, Bp. Steven Biegler's first act as head of the Cheyenne diocese was to reopen the case against Hart. He hired an independent investigator "who obtained substantial new evidence and concluded that the District Attorney's 2002 investigation was flawed and that Bp. Hart sexually abused two boys in Wyoming," according to the diocese.

Biegler added Hart to the list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse. He was also successful in getting the Vatican to launch an investigation against Hart that is still ongoing.

Biegler is also looking to the Church for justice, saying he hopes the Vatican will ultimately conclude "that these sexual abuse allegations against Bp. Hart are credible and require disciplinary action."

We feel very strong on this case.

At the same time as Biegler took action, Cheyenne police launched an investigation into allegations of Hart's sexual abuse of minors. Investigators announced in 2018 that allegations against Hart were, in fact, credible and that the 2002 inquiry into the bishop's conduct was faulty.

According to Inman, Itzen's office is now re-examining police files and conferring with Cheyenne police about what steps to take next. The case is currently in limbo, he clarified, "neither technically open nor technically closed."

"They're going to convene with their guys, they're going to call the chief and we're going to meet again next week," said Inman.

"We feel very strong on this case, and we want to do everything we can in our power to make sure we have probable cause," he added. "We want to do our best and work with Natrona (County) and try to get this done."

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