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Bishop Joseph Hart accused of sexual abuse

Bishop Joseph Hart is shown in an undated photo from the Casper Star-Tribune archive. Hart, who served as bishop or auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001, has been accused of sexually abusing three people. He has maintained his innocence.

A months-long investigation into former Bishop Joseph Hart by the Cheyenne Police Department has stretched into a broader inquiry of priest sexual abuse and now includes multiple suspects and multiple victims, a police spokesman said Friday.

“In the course of this (Hart) investigation, there were other victims who came forward and other names that came forward,” Cheyenne Police Officer Kevin Malatesta said.

Malatesta declined to identify any of the suspects or victims, and he declined to say how many suspects have been identified or how many victims have come forward, citing Wyoming statute. But he said the alleged crimes being investigated by the police all took place in Cheyenne.

He confirmed that the inquiry is looking into “claims of sexual abuse” involving priests. He declined to say whether the victims were all adolescents when they were allegedly abused.

The revelation comes two days after the Diocese of Cheyenne released a list of 11 clergymen who the church determined had faced substantiated allegations of sexual abuse. The list dates back to 1950, with the most recent accusation taking place in 2003. The diocese, which hired a Colorado Springs law firm to lead the review, began the work in September, two months after announcing that it had reopened an investigation into Hart and determined two victims had been sexually abused by the former bishop.

That announcement by the diocese prompted an investigation by Cheyenne police into Hart. The former bishop, who previously served in Kansas City and faced several accusations from his time there, has consistently denied any wrongdoing. In 2002, Cheyenne police investigated him and recommended the case be closed because of a lack of evidence. The Natrona County District Attorney’s Office, who was reviewing the case then, concurred with law enforcement’s assessment and closed the inquiry.

The 2018 investigation into Hart has spanned months and apparently broadened as police learned of more victims. Cheyenne police had put out an appeal for victims of sexual abuse by clergymen to come forward last year.

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Malatesta said some victims came to police directly, while others came as a result of working with the diocese.

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“It’s kind of a tangled ball there,” he said of the investigation. “We’re trying to unravel it, pull it apart, look at all these stories, see if they corroborate one another. We’re assessing evidence. But as new evidence is brought up and new accounts are brought to us, we’re investigating those fully as well. We owe it to the victims to do it correctly and make sure we’re ... doing a thorough investigation.”

Malatesta said the police department is reviewing one large report that covers its entire investigation into priest abuse. Once the review is completed, the report will be turned over to the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office, where prosecutors will determine what charges, if any, will be brought.

Malatesta said he was hesitant to set a timeline for any of that work to be completed, as police may identify new leads that need to be chased down. But he said the police department’s share of the work is nearly complete.

It’s unclear if any other law enforcement agencies in Wyoming are investigating priest abuse allegations. The diocese said it had turned over the results of its internal review to law enforcement. Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen told the Star-Tribune on Thursday he wasn’t aware of any priest-related investigations. A Laramie Police Department spokeswoman and the Sheridan County sheriff also told the Star-Tribune their agencies had not been referred anything by the diocese.

Of the 11 priests named on the list, six are still living.

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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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