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Accuser says retired Wyoming bishop won't face sexual abuse charges

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Bishop Joseph Hart

Bishop Joseph Hart is shown in an undated photo from the Casper Star-Tribune archive. Hart served as bishop or auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001.

Retired Catholic bishop Joseph Hart will not face criminal prosecution over an allegation that he sexually abused at least one boy in the 1970s, the alleged victim in the case told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday.

It’s the second time the former cleric, who has been accused by more than a dozen men of sexual abuse over a period of decades, has been investigated and not charged by Wyoming prosecutors.

The Natrona County District Attorney’s Office told the alleged victim on Monday there was “insufficient evidence” to support charging Hart, who was the auxiliary and later full bishop of the Catholic flock in Wyoming from 1976 to 2001, the accuser said. The conclusion comes 26 months after the Cheyenne Police Department began a criminal investigation into Hart that resulted in the agency recommending the retired bishop be charged.

“On one hand there was disbelief, but on the other hand was just like, ‘Well, yeah,’” the alleged victim told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday, describing the conversation with the prosecutor’s office. The victim’s allegations were substantiated and deemed credible by the Diocese of Cheyenne in July 2018. “In the back of my mind, that was always an outcome. I never thought it was a slam dunk. But there’s a certain bitter resignation that comes with saying, ‘OK, there it goes, that’s just how it is.’ I can’t believe it.”

The victim, who is from Wyoming and now lives out of state, spoke on the condition of anonymity. He came forward in 2002, when a Cheyenne police investigation spanning two months was closed by a Natrona County prosecutor, who found that there wasn’t evidence to support the accusations.

Hart, 88, has consistently denied any misconduct. Reached by phone Tuesday, Hart’s attorney, Tom Jubin, declined to comment. He has previously denied the allegations on behalf of his client.

A message left for Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen was not returned Tuesday. A Cheyenne Police Department spokesman declined to comment because the agency was “waiting on verified documentation.”

Hart has been accused by more than a dozen men of sexual abuse, allegations that span decades and go back to Hart’s time as a priest in Kansas City, Missouri. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has paid settlements to at least 10 of Hart’s alleged victims. Since 2018, the Diocese of Cheyenne has substantiated the allegations of at least six people who have come forward and said they were abused by Hart in Wyoming.

Criminal investigation

The news that Hart will again not be prosecuted comes 10 months after Cheyenne police announced that they were recommending charges against two men — one confirmed by a Cheyenne prosecutor to be Hart — and that the case had been forwarded to prosecutors. Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Ann Manlove recused herself from that case and forwarded it to Itzen, her counterpart in Natrona County, to serve as a special prosecutor.

The victim said that he was never contacted by anyone in Itzen’s office prior to Friday night, when a victim’s advocate left him a voicemail. When they spoke by phone Monday, the advocate told him that no charges were being filed.

The Star-Tribune does not identify the alleged victims of sexual crimes. Hart’s accuser has sought anonymity.

Throughout late 2019, the case bounced between Itzen and Cheyenne police. But Cheyenne police said in March that they had completed follow-up work as directed by Itzen’s office and had passed the case back to the prosecutor.

Over the past six months, Cheyenne police spokesmen told the Star-Tribune that they weren’t sure why the case hadn’t been adjudicated yet and that the agency believed the matter was ready to move forward in late 2019.

Had he been charged and prosecuted, Hart would’ve been the highest-ranking Catholic cleric in U.S. history to face criminal repercussions for sexual abuse. He has faced allegations for years. Though most of Hart’s alleged victims have come forward in Kansas City, a court in Wyoming proved the only opportunity for criminal prosecution because the Equality State has no statute of limitations, meaning that though the abuse was alleged to have happened decades ago, it was still actionable.

“This idea that Wyoming is the only place where any of these cases had a chance because there’s no statute of limitations, and then to think that with everything stacked against it, that this special prosecutor didn’t even call me, like they never called me?” the victim said. “They just took the affidavit, they took the box of files from the detectives, and then I never heard from them until they told me Monday that it’s being dropped.”

“How many children equals one bishop?” said Rebecca Randles, a Kansas City attorney who’s represented a number of victims in lawsuits against priests, the church and Hart. “Because there have been at least eight victims that we know of who are all from different places, different times, different circumstances. So to say there’s not enough evidence for charging makes you wonder, how many children would it take?”

The victim said he only participated in this latest investigation because Bishop Steven Biegler, who is the current head of the Wyoming diocese, flew out to meet him, to apologize and to tell him that he believed this account.

“I’m trying to get the people like Bishop Biegler empowered and supported and recognized that these are the guys who are future of the church, if the church is to have a future, which I personally don’t care about,” the victim said. “I don’t care if the church has a future. But what I care about is making sure that this institution ceases to protect like it has.”

Reopening, reclosing

This is the second time that authorities in Wyoming have declined to charge Hart. In 2002, the victim’s mother told a Laramie County sheriff’s deputy that Hart had abused her son in the mid-1970s, after Hart arrived in Wyoming. In early May 2002, Cheyenne police Lt. Jeff Schulz spoke to the victim, Hart, a diocese employee and two of the victim’s relatives. The victim stopped responding to Schulz, who then recommended the case be closed.

Later that summer, Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan — who, like Itzen 17 years later, was tapped as a special prosecutor — closed the case. He said the accusations were unfounded and were “without merit.”

The victim has maintained that he stopped participating in the 2002 inquiry because he felt attacked and cross-examined by Schulz. Schulz, who has since left the Cheyenne Police Department, declined to comment last year.

Meenan has not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Star-Tribune over the past two years.

Last year, a Cheyenne police spokesman told the Star-Tribune that the investigation was being handled differently now.

“It wouldn’t be done the same way,” spokesman Kevin Malatesta said. “It’s not being done the same way.”

After Meenan closed the 2002 investigation, Hart continued to live in a church-owned home in Cheyenne. His successor as Wyoming bishop, David Ricken, took no public actions against him. (Ricken has previously declined to comment.) Throughout the rest of the decade, men in Kansas City filed lawsuits against Hart and other priests linked to him. The church paid out settlements to them, and the bishop in Kansas City was charged and convicted of failing to report a priest accused of sexual abuse (the priest was later sentenced to 50 years in prison).

In 2010, the new Wyoming bishop, Paul Etienne, asked the Vatican to investigate Hart. It’s unclear what became of that investigation, but Hart remained a member of the clergy and was not expelled from housing. In 2015, shortly before he departed, Etienne restricted Hart’s ability to publicly practice mass.

Diocese inquiry

In 2017, newly appointed Bishop Biegler quietly began his own investigation of Hart. In July 2018, Wyoming diocese announced that it had substantiated allegations by two men who accused Hart of sexual abuse. The diocese also announced that the 2002 criminal investigation by Meenan and Cheyenne police was “flawed” and that the results of this latest inquiry had been turned over to Cheyenne police, who were investigating. The Vatican would also conduct an investigations and would potentially place Hart on trial, which could lead to his expulsion from the priesthood.

The victim told the Star-Tribune that he wanted Hart removed from the clergy. He said he doesn’t know the status of the Vatican investigation. Messages sent from the Star-Tribune to the Vatican have not been returned or have not provided any insight into the inquiry’s status.

Since July 2018, four other men have come forward to say they were sexually abused by Hart in Wyoming. Others have come forward in Kansas City. In August 2019, Cheyenne police announced they were recommending charges against two men: one a former member of the clergy, and the other described alternatively as an altar server and a person attempting to get into the clergy.

Police declined to name either man, but the agency said the case was linked to a 2002 inquiry. The Star-Tribune reported then that Manlove, the Cheyenne prosecutor, had recused herself because of a conflict of interest and that Itzen, the Casper prosecutor, would handle the matter moving forward.

In response to a public records request, Manlove confirmed to the Star-Tribune late last year that Hart was the subject of the investigation. Public records obtained by the Star-Tribune indicate that Cheyenne police turned over the affidavits of probable cause — documents that outline the allegations and factual basis behind them — to Casper prosecutors in early September.

When the Star-Tribune previously requested documents related to the investigation, Cheyenne police rejected the request, citing the ongoing investigation and state statute that keeps sexual misconduct investigations secret. But a log of the withheld documents provided to the newspaper indicates that multiple “Diocese of Cheyenne child abuse report” forms were obtained by Cheyenne police in 2018. The log also indicates a trove of other documents were turned over from the diocese to police (the diocese has said the church has cooperated with the investigation).

Since the case was reopened in 2018, six men have come forward to allege Hart abused them in Wyoming. More have come forward in Kansas City. A Kansas City police spokesman told the Star-Tribune last year that a police report alleging abuse by Hart was made last year but because Missouri has a statute of limitations, the case could not proceed.

Hart is still apparently facing a Vatican investigation or trial, though it’s unclear the status of that investigation. The victim said he never wanted Hart to sit in a prison cell.

“Me and all the other boys who were abused were ashamed our whole lives about it,” he said. “Now he needs to be ashamed. When he walks into a store or gets out of a car in a parking lot, people look at him and know who he is. Not walk around in a priest collar or live in a house owned by the diocese or buried in the priest section of the cemetery or given the bishop’s funeral.”


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Education and Health Reporter

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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