Faith

Former KC priest faces new credible sex abuse allegations in Wyoming, diocese says

‘I couldn’t imagine that a man that I loved this much could do something so evil’

Susie McClernon is still dealing with the trauma of the sexual abuse her youngest brother, Kevin Hunter, suffered years ago. Hunter died in 1989.
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Susie McClernon is still dealing with the trauma of the sexual abuse her youngest brother, Kevin Hunter, suffered years ago. Hunter died in 1989.

The Diocese of Cheyenne in Wyoming announced this week that it has substantiated three more allegations of sexual abuse of a minor lodged against a former Kansas City priest.

Three new individuals have come forward in the past year, accusing Bishop Joseph Hart of sexually abusing them in the 1970s and 1980s, the diocese said Tuesday.

“The allegations have been reported to the civil authorities, and the Diocese of Cheyenne has cooperated fully with the police,” the diocese said.

Two of the alleged victims were Missouri residents, a spokesman for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph told The Star on Wednesday. The reported abuse took place on trips Hart took with boys from Kansas City to Wyoming, he said.

The latest allegations bring to six the number of credible complaints the Cheyenne diocese says it has fielded against its former bishop, who was a priest in Kansas City from 1956 to 1976.

“I applaud the victims who have come forward to report sexual abuse to the police or the Church,” said Bishop Steven Biegler, of the Diocese of Cheyenne, in Tuesday’s statement. “Your courageous action helps us to address these terrible crimes, and your example encourages other victims to find their voice.”

News of the latest Wyoming allegations came just days after Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph released a list of 24 priests he said have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor in the Missouri diocese. Hart was among those on the list.

The Cheyenne diocese said it asked Hart for an interview to respond to the newest allegations.

“He declined to be interviewed,” the diocese said. “The results of the investigation were given to the Diocesan Review Board, which found the three allegations credible and substantiated.”

Hart, the Bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 until he retired in 2001, has categorically denied all allegations against him over the years. His attorney, Tom Jubin, did not respond to a request for comment. Last year, Jubin said the Diocese of Cheyenne was “engaging in a smear campaign in an effort to try to influence public opinion with considerably less than the full story.”

Hart, who turns 88 on Sept. 26, also is the subject of a criminal child sexual abuse investigation in Cheyenne. Though the alleged abuse occurred decades ago, Wyoming — unlike most states — has no statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions, so criminal charges can be filed even years later.

Last month, the Cheyenne police department recommended that charges be filed against Hart. If that happens, he would become the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric in the country to be charged with sexual abuse of a minor.

Hart also is under investigation by the Vatican. At the U.S bishops’ general assembly in June, Biegler announced that Hart would face a Vatican trial over the allegations that he sexually abused minors. If found guilty, he could be removed from the priesthood.

The Cheyenne diocese said Tuesday that the Holy See had directed Biegler to complete the church investigation. The diocese said it sent a report to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and to church leaders, including Bishop Johnston in Kansas City.

“As the Church, we promise to protect the most vulnerable and to accompany those who have been harmed on a journey of healing,” Biegler said.

Allegations against Hart first surfaced in 1989 and 1992 in Kansas City. One man alleged that Hart had sexually abused him when he was in junior high and Hart was a priest. And the family of another man said Hart sexually abused their younger brother when the boy was in his early teens. Their brother’s life spiraled downhill after that, they said, and he died in 1989.

Church officials in Kansas City deemed those allegations not credible, but last August, a diocesan spokesman said the diocese and Bishop Johnston now consider both to be credible.

Allegations against Hart erupted again in 2002, when a Wyoming man accused the recently retired bishop of sexually abusing him as a boy. Wyoming authorities concluded there was no evidence to support the allegations. But in July 2018, Biegler ­— the new Bishop of Cheyenne — announced that the diocese had reopened its investigation into Hart.

Biegler said the previous investigation was flawed. He said a second man had come forward alleging sexual abuse by Hart and that both men’s allegations were now deemed “credible and substantiated.” At the end of August 2018, the Diocese of Cheyenne said it had received a third credible sexual abuse allegation against Hart. That brought to more than a dozen the number of allegations lodged against him.

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

And the allegations continue to stack up. Last month, the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese said it had received four new reports against Hart since the Diocese of Cheyenne announced its investigation into the retired bishop last summer.

Those making the new allegations were all Missouri men, said Jack Smith, spokesman for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The time frame of the alleged acts, he said, was from the late 1950s to the late 1970s.

Smith said Wednesday that the alleged acts occurred in Kansas City, Cheyenne “and we think Casper, Wyoming.”

“That would have been on a trip from Kansas City that Bishop Hart took with boys from Kansas City,” he said.

Smith said the diocese has not yet substantiated the four new allegations, but two have been substantiated by the Cheyenne diocese. Those are two of the three the Cheyenne diocese announced Tuesday.

“Our IRB (Independent Review Board) has not met on this group yet,” he said. “They will be later this month. We want to try and see if we can substantiate the specific Missouri allegations.”

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Judy L. Thomas joined The Star in 1995 and is a member of the investigative team, focusing on watchdog journalism. Over three decades, the Kansas native has covered domestic terrorism, extremist groups and clergy sex abuse. Her stories on Kansas secrecy and religion have been nationally recognized.
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