Faith

Wyoming police reopen case in sex abuse claims against former Kansas City priest

Former Bishop Joseph Hart
Former Bishop Joseph Hart File photo

Police in Cheyenne, Wyo., have reopened an investigation involving a former Kansas City priest who went on to become a Wyoming bishop and was later accused of sexually abusing several boys.

In a news release issued this week, the Cheyenne Police Department said it was seeking information regarding sex abuse claims reported to the department as a result of an internal investigation underway by the Diocese of Cheyenne. That investigation is looking into what the diocese says are credible allegations of sexual abuse committed by former Bishop Joseph Hart.

Police did not name the subject of the investigation in their release — only calling him a “church official” — but it is clear that the person they are referring to is Hart. Now 86, Hart served as bishop or auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001. He was a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976.

“With new information, the CPD has reopened an investigation in regards to allegations of abuse taking place in Cheyenne in the 1970s through the late 1990s by a local church official,” the police department said. “However, due to the time that has passed since those events, CPD investigators are seeking additional information from any victims or witnesses.”

The issue exploded in July when the bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne said in a surprise announcement that Hart had been credibly accused of sexually abusing two boys. In a news release, Bishop Steven Biegler criticized a previous investigation by civil authorities as “flawed.”

Biegler said he was continuing restrictions placed years ago on Hart after a new probe conducted by an independent investigator found allegations that Hart sexually abused two Wyoming boys to be “credible and substantiated.”

Cheyenne police spokesman Kevin Malatesta told The Star on Wednesday that the goal of issuing the news release was to try to identify more potential victims and witnesses in the case.

“One thing that’s a little unique in Wyoming is we don’t have a statute of limitations like other states have,” he said. “We’re aware that people may have reported things in the past, but maybe it felt at the time that their claims were discredited or not given the attention that they merit. We really want to assure people that we are taking all claims, all reports and investigating them fully.”

The request for information by Cheyenne police comes a week after a grand jury in Pennsylvania released a shocking report that found church leaders there had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.

The grand jury report contained horrific details of some of the abuse and prompted calls for change from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. On Monday, Pope Francis released a 2,000-word letter admitting that the Vatican hadn’t done enough to address the issue. And in Kansas City, sex abuse victims called for Kansas and Missouri authorities to conduct grand jury investigations similar to the one in Pennsylvania.

Hart has repeatedly denied the allegations.

In a statement last month, he said he would cooperate fully with the diocese’s investigation and was confident the allegations would be found to have “no merit.”

“In the interest of fairness to all involved, I have no further comment except to say that I will continue to pray that those who have suffered abuse, no matter at whose hands, receive justice and healing,” he said.

Allegations against Hart first surfaced in 1989 and 1992, when two men alleged that Hart had sexually abused them when he was a priest in Kansas City and they were boys. Church officials deemed those allegations not credible, but the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese helped one of the men buy a pickup truck and paid for his counseling. The diocese also paid counseling bills for two sisters of the other alleged victim.

Then in 2002, a Wyoming man accused Hart of sexually abusing him as a boy, saying the abuse occurred in confession and on outings after Hart had become bishop. The Cheyenne diocese said in July that a second Wyoming man had recently come forward and alleged that Hart also had abused him.

The diocese said that the former Natrona County district attorney had investigated the allegations in 2002 and concluded that there was no evidence to support the allegations that originated in Wyoming.

“The Diocese of Cheyenne now questions that conclusion based upon a recently completed exhaustive investigation,” the diocese said.

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese said last month that Hart was named by 10 individuals in lawsuits regarding child sexual abuse claims dating from the 1970s. Those claims were part of large settlements the diocese entered into in 2008 and 2014 for cases involving numerous victims and priests.

The Cheyenne diocese said in July that it had reported the allegations against Hart to the Laramie County district attorney and that the Cheyenne Police Department had opened an investigation. At the time, police said they could neither confirm nor deny that they were investigating.

But in their news release this week, police asked that “victims or witnesses of sex abuse crimes taking place in Cheyenne and related to a church official” contact the Laramie County Dispatch Center at 307-637-6525. Wyoming law prohibits authorities from releasing the name of a suspect in a sex abuse crime prior to charges being filed.

“In an effort to consolidate these cases, the CPD is asking anyone making a report in relation to the church to do so by September 21,” police said.

“That’s fantastic news,” said Kansas City attorney Rebecca Randles, who has represented several men in civil lawsuits alleging abuse by Hart. “It’s been a long time coming.”

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