A former Kansas City priest who went on to become a Wyoming bishop has been credibly accused of sexually abusing two boys, the bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne said Monday in a surprise announcement in which he criticized a previous investigation by civil authorities as "flawed."
Bishop Steven Biegler of the Diocese of Cheyenne said he was continuing restrictions placed years ago on Bishop Emeritus Joseph Hart after a new investigation into allegations that he sexually abused two Wyoming boys found the claims to be "credible and substantiated."
"Nothing is more important than the safety of our children," Biegler said. "We have zero tolerance for sexual abuse of any kind. If there is ever any indication of abuse brought to our attention, it will be reported to the civil authorities and investigated thoroughly, even when the allegations involve a bishop."
Hart, 86, 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.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
Starting in 1989 and after, several men alleged that Hart had sexually abused them when he was a priest in Kansas City and they were boys. In 2002, a Wyoming man accused Hart of sexually abusing him as a boy. The abuse, the man said, occurred in sacramental confession and on outings after Hart had become bishop.
Recently, a second Wyoming man alleged that Hart also had abused him, the Cheyenne diocese said in a news release issued Monday.
"In 2002, the District Attorney in Casper, Wyoming, issued a report concluding 'that there was no evidence to support the allegations' originating in Wyoming," the diocese said. "The Diocese of Cheyenne now questions that conclusion based upon a recently completed exhaustive investigation."
The release said that though there were financial settlements in 2008 and 2014 in civil lawsuits filed against Hart, "there were no trials and no determination of guilt or innocence."
"Bishop Hart has consistently denied all allegations that he sexually abused minors," it said.
Since the matter was not resolved, the Diocese of Cheyenne said Monday, Biegler ordered "a fresh, thorough investigation." In December 2017, the diocese said, it hired an outside investigator "who obtained substantial new evidence and concluded that the District Attorney's 2002 investigation was flawed and that Bishop Hart sexually abused two boys in Wyoming."
The Diocesan Review Board reviewed the investigator's report and agreed with the assessment, the diocese said. In March, the diocese said, it reported the alleged abuse to the Cheyenne district attorney, and the Cheyenne Police Department opened an investigation.
"The Diocese is cooperating with that investigation," it said Monday, adding that "in May 2018, Bishop Biegler sent the initial investigation report to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome."
The Cheyenne district attorney could not be reached late Monday.
The previous bishop, Paul Etienne, had restricted Hart from celebrating public liturgical services in the Diocese of Cheyenne, and Biegler continued those restrictions when he became bishop, the diocese said Monday.
"The Congregation for Bishops in Rome has extended these same restrictions everywhere," the diocese said. And after the recent investigation, it said, "Bishop Biegler decided that St. Joseph's Children's Home in Torrington should remove Hart's name from a building in the facility."
Biegler said he hoped the new investigation will lead to a final determination by the Vatican "that these sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Hart are credible and require disciplinary action."
Hart was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1956 and served in five parishes in the diocese until his appointment in Cheyenne in 1976, where he served until his retirement in 2001.
In 1989 and 1992, the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese received two complaints alleging that Hart had inappropriately touched two boys in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Hart denied the allegations but asked the diocese to address them according to local policies. A psychiatric evaluation found that he did not appear to be a threat to himself or others, the diocese said. Hart returned to ministry in Wyoming.
In a statement late Monday, 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 the settlements the diocese entered into in 2008 and 2014. The 2014 settlement, totaling $10 million, was part of a lawsuit originally filed by a former altar boy against another priest. The settlement covered abuse claims against 14 priests.
"Bishop Hart has denied these allegations," the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese said in its statement. "Despite these denials, Bishop Biegler said that restrictions on Bishop Hart’s public ministry have been in place for several years."
Rebecca Randles, the Kansas City attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuits against Hart, said Monday's announcement may help bring them some comfort.
"The abused boys, now men, will find a semblance of peace tonight knowing that someone has finally believed them," Randles said. "When the criminal justice system allows perpetrators to roam freely, the only form of justice available to victims is the civil process. There are no findings of guilt or innocence in a civil lawsuit, just liability or no liability. While it is technically correct that no trial took place because the Diocese of Kansas City settled these claims, settlement does not establish innocence.
"We remain committed to protecting children and with the permission of our clients will happily share the information we have with the prosecutor."
Bishop James V. Johnston of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph said in Monday's statement that "I want to assure those harmed by sexual abuse, especially by leaders in the Church, of our diocese's commitment to create safe environments and accompany abuse survivors as they travel through the journey of healing."
"Bishops Biegler and Johnston hope and pray that healing and peace will come to all who have been impacted by these allegations," the diocese's statement said. It added that for anyone harmed by Hart or any other person who has worked or volunteered at the diocese, "no matter how long ago, the diocese wants to provide care and healing resources to you and your family."
To report suspicions of abuse, the diocese said, call the Missouri Child Abuse Hotline at 800-392-3738 if the victim is under 18 and contact local law enforcement.
"After reporting to these civil and law enforcement authorities, report suspected sexual abuse of a minor or vulnerable adult to the Diocesan ombudsman, Jenifer Valenti, at 816.812.2500 or JeniferValenti@att.net, if the abuse involves a priest, deacon, employee or volunteer of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph," the diocese said. "The Diocese has a sincere commitment to providing care and healing resources to victims of sexual abuse and their families. Please contact the Victim Advocate, Kathleen Chastain, at 816.392.0011 or email@example.com for more information."