Cheyenne diocese finds credible three abuse allegations against emeritus bishop

Cheyenne, Wyo., Sep 10, 2019 / 05:01 pm (CNA).- The Diocese of Cheyenne announced Tuesday it has found credible and substantiated three allegations of child sexual abuse against Emeritus Bishop Joseph Hart, which it had received since July and August 2018.

The alleged incidents newly found credible occurred in the 1970s and '80s.

“The results of the investigation were given to the Diocesan Review Board, which found the three allegations credible and substantiated,” the diocese stated Sept. 10.

It added that its results were forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “for its action”, as well as to the apostolic nuncio; Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver (the metropolitan); and Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph (where Hart served as a prior to his episcopal consecration).

In the statement, Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne said that “I applaud the victims who have come forward to report sexual abuse to the police or the Church. Your courageous action helps us to address these terrible crimes, and your example encourages other victims to find their voice. As the Church, we promise to protect the most vulnerable and to accompany those who have been harmed on a journey of healing.”

In July 2018 the Cheyenne diocese announced that Bishop Hart had been credibly accused of sexually assaulting two boys after he became Bishop of Cheyenne in 1976, following an investigation of charges ordered by Bishop Biegler.

In 2002, a Wyoming man accused the bishop of sexually abusing him as a boy, both during sacramental confession and on outings. The alleged abuse took place after Hart had become a bishop.

The Natrona County district attorney in 2002 had put forward a report saying there was no evidence to support the allegations that originated in Wyoming.

The Cheyenne diocese said in July 2018 that it “now questions that conclusion.”

According to the diocese, Bishop Steven Biegler had ordered a “fresh, thorough investigation” because the claims against Hart had not been resolved.

In December 2017, Bishop Biegler retained an outside investigator who obtained “substantial new evidence” and who concluded the district attorney’s 2002 investigation was flawed. The investigator concluded that Bishop Hart had sexually abused two boys in Wyoming.

The diocesan review board, after reviewing the report, concurred with the investigator, finding the allegations “credible and substantiated.” The diocese reported the alleged abuse to the Cheyenne district attorney in March 2018, and Cheyenne police opened an investigation.

In August 2018, the diocese announced it had found credible a third allegation of child sexual abuse committed by Bishop Hart.

“A third individual reported that he, too, was sexually abused by Bishop Hart in 1980,” the diocese said. This third person reported the abuse after the diocese's announcement there was “credible and substantiated” evidence that Bishop Hart had abused two Wyoming boys.

Police in Cheyenne recommended last month that two  clerics accused of sexually abusing male juveniles in the 1970s and '80s be charged. The clerics were unnamed in the police's release, though the investigation stams from a case initiated in 2002 that was reopened in 2018.

Also last month, four new sex abuse allegations were raised against Bishop Hart, spanning his time both as a priest in Missouri and a bishop in Wyoming. Each of these alleged victims were Missouri residents.

In its Sept. 10 statement, the Cheyenne diocese noted that while new norms authorize the metropolitan archbishop to oversee investigations of allegations against bishops, Bishop Biegler “was directed to complete the investigation … upon consultation with the Holy See,” as his diocese had already begun an investigation.

The local Church added that its investigations “included asking Bishop Hart for an interview to respond to the accusation,” but that he “declined to be interviewed.”

Bishop Hart has denied accusations of abusing minors.

His first accusers came forward in 1989, when he was alleged to have abused boys while serving as a priest in Kansas City. Ten individuals named Hart in lawsuits related to child sexual abuse claims dating from the 1970s. These accusations were part of settlements the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph reached in 2008 and 2014, though Bishop Hart denied the accusations, the Missouri diocese has said.

Bishop Hart was ordained a priest for the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese in 1956, where he served until he was named an auxiliary bishop in Cheyenne in 1976, and appointed to lead the diocese two years later. He served as Bishop of Cheyenne until his resignation in 2001 at the age of 70.

In June the Cheyenne diocese released a list of substantiated allegations of sexual abuse against minors or vulnerable adults. The release listed allegations against 11 clerics who had served in the diocese.

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