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Bishop Joseph Hart

Bishop Joseph Hart served the Diocese of Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001. The diocese alleged in a Monday press release that Hart abused two boys during his tenure in Wyoming. 

A lawyer who represented alleged victims of former Cheyenne Bishop Joseph Hart claimed the clergyman abused two boys on trips to and from Wyoming.

Both of the alleged victims were included in a 2008 settlement by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri over claims of sexual abuse by priests, including Hart, attorney Rebecca Randles told the Star-Tribune on Tuesday. One of the alleged victims is from Wyoming. A second lived in Kansas City but died before the settlement; he was represented by his brother in the case and was allegedly abused on trips all over the West.

Randles represented the brother, the Wyoming man and other alleged victims who in 2004 sued Hart, the Kansas City dioceses, church officials and other priests accused of abuse. She said she is aware of six settlements involving Hart, primarily to alleged victims in Missouri.

On Monday, the Diocese of Cheyenne alleged Hart abused two Wyoming boys during his tenure as bishop, a role he assumed in 1976 after spending 20 years as a priest in Kansas City. In December, the diocese launched its own investigations into an allegation of sexual abuse that arose in 2002 and subsequently became aware of a second alleged victim.

The diocese did not identify either of the alleged victims. It’s unclear whether they had any connection to the 2008 settlement.

Hart has denied all allegations of abuse, both those leveled against him in Wyoming and from his time in Kansas City. He reiterated that position Monday, and his attorney, Tom Jubin, said Tuesday that Hart did not “abuse boys on trips to KC.”

He added that Randles was referring to “old allegations that were determined to be without merit back in 2002.”

“As I understand it, attorney Randles is someone who is in the business of suing the church,” Jubin said in an email to the Star-Tribune on Tuesday.

Past investigation

In 2002, an investigation by the Natrona County District Attorney’s office cleared Hart and said the allegations lacked merit. But on Monday, the Diocese of Cheyenne released a statement challenging that finding. The diocese said that it has conducted two investigations into the allegations since December and found that the claims — both from 2002 and from a separate allegation, made sometime in the past seven months— were “credible and substantiated.”

The diocese wrote that the Cheyenne Police Department is now investigating the allegations. A spokesman for the department declined to confirm or deny whether police were involved, citing a Wyoming statute related to sexual abuse cases.

In a statement, the diocese said its current bishop, Steven Biegler, became aware of the 2002 accusation last summer, and the diocese hired an investigator in December. During that investigation, the diocese became aware of the second alleged victim, said the Rev. Carl Gallinger, the vicar general of the diocese. He declined to say how the diocese and its investigator became aware of the second alleged victim.

In addition to finding the allegations against Hart credible, the diocese further wrote that the 2002 Natrona County District Attorney’s Office investigation into the allegations was “flawed.”

“In the 2002 police report given to the district attorney, it included statements by the victim made by phone, and those statements contradict the DA’s July 2002 press release stating that, quote, ‘There was no evidence to support the allegations,’” Gallinger said.

He added that police never spoke face-to-face with the victim, though why is unclear. In a July 2002 report in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, provided by Hart’s attorney, then-Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan said the alleged victim “refused to cooperate.”

On Tuesday, Gallinger said the diocese reopened the investigation because “the matter had not been resolved” and there was no “determination of innocence or guilt.” In March, Biegler met with Hart to inform him that the diocese was taking a credible accusation to police, Gallinger said.

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In comments sent through his lawyer, Hart said Monday that he learned of the second, most recent allegation via the diocese’s statement, also released Monday.

In its release, the diocese wrote that the victim who came forward in 2002 was allegedly abused “in sacramental confession and on outings after Hart had become the bishop in Wyoming.”

Missouri court records show Hart was a defendant in a 2004 lawsuit, along with two other priests accused of abuse, the Kansas City diocese and two church officials, who were both accused of covering up the allegations. The Cheyenne diocese was not involved in that lawsuit. Randles alleged that there were more accusations against Hart than those that were settled.

The results of the diocese’s investigation have also been turned over to church officials in Rome, Gallinger said, who confirmed that Hart is still a member of the clergy. But he’s been “restricted ... from celebrating public liturgical services” in Cheyenne. Gallinger declined to comment on any punishment Hart may face and said that was in the hands of officials in Rome.

The diocese alleged in its statement that it had found “new evidence” against Hart, though Gallinger — citing the open police investigation — declined to comment.

Questions remain

It’s unclear why the allegations, against a Cheyenne-based clergyman, were investigated in Casper. Meenan, the district attorney at the time, did not return a request for comment. Gallinger said he was unsure.

Current Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen said he was also not sure how the case ended up here back in 2002. He said he had seen the police report from that time and that it was about six pages long.

The complaint handled by the Natrona County office was alleged to have taken place in Cheyenne. Blonigen speculated that a conflict of interest or an attempt to get “a second set of eyes” on the complaint could have been the reason Natrona County authorities handled it.

Blonigen was not involved in the investigation, he said. He said his office is not involved in an investigation currently being conducted by the Cheyenne Police Department.

Randles and David Clohessy, who is a victim of sexual abuse by a priest and for years ran the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, had mixed feelings about the diocese’s Monday statement.

“I think one’s instinct is to be hopeful, but history suggests strong skepticism,” Clohessy, who said he knows one of Hart’s alleged victims in Wyoming and several more in Kansas City, said. “One move does not erase centuries of cover up.”

“I would applaud (the Diocese of Cheyenne),” Randles said. “It gives my clients some closure over events in their lives that were quite traumatic.”

Clohessy called on Biegler, the Cheyenne diocese’s current bishop, to disclose more details about the 2002 investigation and to “post on his website the names, whereabouts and status of every proven, admitted or credibly accused church employee from bishop to bookkeeper.”

He added that “prevention and healing happen when the full truth is known.”

Star-Tribune staff writer Shane Sanderson contributed to this report.

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Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann

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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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