Wyoming DA Won’t Charge Bishop

News: US News
by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  ChurchMilitant.com  •  June 10, 2020   

Vatican trial ongoing

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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (ChurchMilitant.com) - A retired Wyoming bishop will not face criminal charges for alleged sexual abuse of minors spanning decades.

Following a two-year investigation of Cheyenne's Bp. Emeritus Joseph Hart, Wyoming authorities are saying there's insufficient evidence to charge the prelate with sexual abuse. One of Hart's alleged victims, whose claims were deemed credible by the diocese of Cheyenne in 2018, was informed of this decision by the witness coordinator in the Natrona County DA's office.

Bp. Steven Biegler

"I think I am a little bit numb," said the man. "Six people have come forward in Wyoming. What is the remedy for child sex abuse, then, if you don't believe the victims and you're not willing to take it to trial?"

Justice From the Vatican?

He said he's still looking for justice from the Vatican, which opened a case against the 88-year-old Hart in June 2019.

"The thing that I'm now hoping is that the Vatican will strip him of his priesthood while he's alive," related the alleged victim.

The Cheyenne diocese, headed by Bp. Steven Biegler since 2017, includes Hart on its list of clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse. The site notes that Pope Francis has "imposed restrictions" on Hart and has "authorized a penal process" against him.

This case is currently being adjudicated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which has yet to reach a verdict.

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 a priest in the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph were first reported to Kansas City diocesan officials as early as 1989.

What is the remedy for child sex abuse, then, if you don't believe the victims and you're not willing to take it to trial?

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."

Two years after being named auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne, Hart allegedly abused still more young men. Six of these have since come forward to accuse him.
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 Bp. Hart "does not appear to be a threat to himself or others on any level." He then resumed his duties as Cheyenne's bishop.

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 cleared Hart of wrongdoing, however, saying the had found "no evidence to support the allegations."

Rebecca Randles

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.

Biegler's first act as Cheyenne's bishop in 2017 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.

At the same time, the Cheyenne Police Department launched an investigation into allegations of abuse. Investigators announced in 2018 that allegations against Hart were, in fact, credible and that the 2002 inquiry into the bishop's conduct was faulty.

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.

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."

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