No sex abuse charges for former Wyoming bishop, but successor praises ‘courageous’ victims
CNA Staff, Jun 12, 2020 / 06:15 pm (CNA).- While Wyoming prosecutors have declined to press criminal sexual abuse charges against Bishop emeritus Joseph Hart, Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne has repeated that the diocese considers allegations against Hart to be credible. He commended alleged victims who have come forward, emphasizing the need for justice.
“This decision not to pursue a criminal case does not mean that the victims are not credible. Once again, I commend the victims who have spoken courageously about their abuse,” Bishop Biegler said in a June 11 statement. “I also stand behind the determination made by the Diocese of Cheyenne that allegations of sexual abuse against former Bishop Hart are credible.”
The Natrona County District Attorney’s Office has told an alleged victim that there was “insufficient evidence” to support a charge against Hart. The allegation concerned sexual abuse in the 1970s, the Casper Star-Tribune reported June 9.
The alleged victim described his reaction: “On one hand there was disbelief, but on the other hand was just like, ‘Well, yeah.’”
“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,” he told the Star-Tribune.
Bishop Biegler said that the diocese hopes the district attorney’s office will offer an adequate account of its decision not to seek criminal charges.
“The Diocese of Cheyenne has fully cooperated with law enforcement during the past two years that they have been investigating this case,” Biegler said. “The diocese understands and appreciates that the decision to pursue a criminal case rests solely with the district attorney’s office. Proving the charges beyond a reasonable doubt is a high standard of proof. The diocese also understands that a criminal case requires a unanimous jury verdict in order to convict.”
More than 12 men have accused Hart of sexual abuse, with the first accusers coming forward in 1989. The alleged abuse took place from when he was a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph through his time as a bishop. Wyoming has no statute of limitations on criminal charges for sexual abuse.
Hart, 88, denies any misconduct.
Bishop Hart was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City in 1956, where he served until he was named an auxiliary bishop in Cheyenne in 1976. He was appointed to lead the diocese two years later. He served as Bishop of Cheyenne until his resignation in 2001 at the age of 70.
“The Diocese of Cheyenne is adamant in a sincere quest for justice for everyone,” Bishop Biegler said. “A just resolution is essential for the victims and their family members, but also for the clergy and laity in the Diocese of Cheyenne and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s.”
He added that a Church investigation is still pending.
“It is important to differentiate between criminal charges and the canonical crimes being investigated by Church authorities,” the bishop added. “That process continues under the oversight of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith at the Vatican, and the Diocese of Cheyenne has not received new information on the status of the case.”
The victim in the developing case came forward in 2002 when a Natrona County prosecutor closed a two-month investigation due to a lack of evidence. The victim has said he stopped participating in that inquiry because he felt attacked and cross-examined by a Cheyenne police lieutenant.
In July 2018, the Cheyenne diocese questioned the conclusion of the prosecutor in closing the case.
The Cheyenne Police Department investigated and recommended charges in August 2019.
When the case was referred to prosecutors, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Ann Manlove recused herself and sent the case to Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen to serve as special prosecutor.
The victim told the Star-Tribune he was not contacted by anyone in Itzen’s office until the night of Friday June 5 when a victim’s advocate left a voicemail. The advocate told him the following Monday that no charges were being filed.
The victim objected that the special prosecutor should have contacted him. He said he participated in the latest investigation only because Bishop Biegler flew out to meet him, apologized, and told him he believed his story.
“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 told the Star-Tribune. “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.”
In 2010, then-Bishop of Cheyenne Paul Etienne asked for a Vatican investigation into Hart, though the outcome of that investigation is unclear. In 2015, before moving to a different diocese, Etienne restricted Hart’s ability to say Mass.
Hart was previously investigated by Wyoming prosecutors and not charged regarding a different allegation.
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 victim has said that he wants Hart dismissed from the clerical state so he will not have funeral honors for a bishop or priest. He also wants him removed from diocesan housing.
“Me and all the other boys who were abused were ashamed our whole lives about it,” the victim said. “Now he needs to be ashamed.”