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Case against retired bishop now in limbo as DA tells police he will again review investigation
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Case against retired bishop now in limbo as DA tells police he will again review investigation

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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. He spent 20 years as a priest in Kansas City before coming to Wyoming.

The criminal investigation into retired bishop Joseph Hart has not been officially closed, Cheyenne police said Friday, after authorities realized that a prosecutor had misunderstood police files describing the allegations against the cleric.

Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen, who would prosecute any case against Hart, spoke with Cheyenne police officials on Friday, a spokesman for the agency said. Cheyenne police had handled the investigation into Hart and felt “very strongly” about the sexual abuse investigation into him, which police feel warrants Hart being charged. Investigators wanted an explanation from Itzen on why he wasn’t proceeding with charges, news that broke last week after a victim’s advocate from Itzen’s office called the alleged victim central to the case and told him that Hart would not be charged.

A Cheyenne police spokesman said during that Friday morning conversation, police and Itzen realized that the prosecutor had misread or misunderstood details in the affidavit of probable cause — the document that lays out the narrative of the case and the investigators’ factual basis for charging Hart.

Cheyenne police spokesman David Inman said investigators asked for the meeting to clarify information from the letter Itzen had sent police about closing the case. He said part of the misunderstanding was a difference in how law enforcement in Cheyenne and Casper handle paperwork.

“Some of the stuff we didn’t agree with,” Inman said of Itzen’s decision not to charge Hart. “We wanted clarification. 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.’ That’s what’s causing the case to come back to life. They’re going to convene with their guys, they’re going to call the chief, and we’re going to meet again next week.”

Itzen was not immediately available for comment Friday afternoon.

Inman said that while Itzen and his office are re-examining and conferring about next steps, the case remains in limbo, neither technically open nor technically closed.

“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 continued. “We want to do our best and work with Natrona (County) and try to get this done.”

It’s unclear why this misunderstanding was just discovered now, 10 days after Itzen’s office told the alleged victim the case was done and nine months after Cheyenne police recommended that Itzen charge Hart. Inman said communication between police and prosecutors had been difficult. Public records indicate Itzen was given copies of revised affidavits describing the case in September.

Years of allegations

Hart, 88, has been accused by more than a dozen men of sexual abuse both in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was a priest for 21 years, and in Wyoming, where he served as auxiliary and then full bishop from 1976 to his retirement in 2001. The first known allegations against Hart were made in the late 1980s and alleged Hart had begun abusing an adolescent boy in the early 1960s. In the past two years, at least six men have come forward in Wyoming to say Hart abused them here, and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has settled in court with at least 10 victims.

The dioceses in Cheyenne and Kansas City have said the men who’ve come forward against Hart are credible and church officials have substantiated the allegations against Hart.

Hart has consistently denied all accusations of misconduct. A message sent to his attorney seeking comment Friday was not immediately returned.

The news earlier this month that Hart wouldn’t be charged shocked and angered those close to the case. It’s the second time the retired bishop has avoided criminal prosecution in Wyoming, after the same man who’s central to this case came forward in 2002. That investigation was swiftly closed, after the man says he stopped responding to police because of how the lead investigator treated him and his story.

This latest criminal investigation into Hart was sparked by current Cheyenne bishop Steven Biegler, who initiated an independent inquiry into the retired bishop in late 2017. That led to Cheyenne police opening their own case in April 2018, which continued until August, when they recommended that Itzen charge Hart and another man in connection with sexual abuse from the 1970s and 1980s.

It’s unclear how many accusers are involved in the case. Two men have told the Star-Tribune they were abused by Hart in Wyoming and that they spoke with police. Inman declined to say how many victims were involved and how many suspects were part of the investigation. Police previously said there were two suspects they were recommending be charged.

Prior to Biegler’s investigation, his predecessor, then-bishop Paul Etienne, briefed Biegler on Hart. In 2010, Etienne had asked the Vatican to investigate Hart, and in 2015, he restricted Hart’s ability to celebrate mass.

It’s unclear what became of the Etienne-requested investigation. It’s also unclear why Etienne’s predecessor, David Ricken, did nothing to investigate Hart. A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Green Bay (Wisconsin), where Ricken now serves as bishop, previously said that a lack of victim cooperation meant the church couldn’t move forward in past years.

But the alleged victim at the center of this case has said the only reason he communicated with Biegler is because the bishop flew out to meet him, told him he believed him and promised to pursue Hart. Ricken and Etienne never undertook those efforts, the man said.

Messages sent to Ricken’s spokeswoman asking why he took no action and if he regretted that decision were not returned earlier this week. A spokeswoman for the Seattle archdiocese, where Etienne now serves as archbishop, said the cleric was on vacation and wouldn’t be able to answer questions about his record with Hart.

‘Stunned’ by decision

The alleged victim at the center of the case told the Star-Tribune previously that he was “stunned” by Itzen’s decision not to proceed. He said he was never contacted by the prosecutor and has struggled to get questions answered by the prosecutor’s office. A second man who said Hart abused him in Wyoming, who also asked that he not be named, said he spoke with Cheyenne police for 45 minutes last year and was never contacted again.

Darrel Hunter, whose two now-deceased brothers said they were abused by Hart beginning in the 1960s, told the Star-Tribune earlier this week that he, too, spoke to Cheyenne police about what happened to his family.

“It’s just had an enormous impact on us,” Hunter said.

While it remains unclear if Hart will face any secular prosecution, he is still waiting adjudication at the hands of the Vatican. Officials have said for months that church officials are investigating the retired bishop, an inquiry that may lead to his being removed from the priesthood.

But the status of that Vatican investigation is unclear, even to the victims and high-ranking church officials.

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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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