An investigation into child sexual abuse allegations against former Kansas City priest Joseph Hart regarding incidents from decades ago could still result in criminal charges in Wyoming, the Laramie County district attorney said Tuesday.
Jeremiah Sandburg told The Star there is no statute of limitations on criminal cases in the state. He added, however, that "while we don't have a statute, there is an issue of time."
"And time does a number on a lot of things. So the real question is, would there be any evidence left that you could use to prove a case?"
Hart, 86, served as bishop and auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne from 1976 until his retirement in 2001. Before that, he was a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976.
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The issue exploded on Monday 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 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's attorney, Thomas Jubin, said in a statement that the Cheyenne diocese "issued a bizarre press release that is both shocking and appalling." Jubin said the diocese's news release also suggested "that current Bishop (Steven) Biegler has some personal interest in substantiating sexual abuse allegations against one of his predecessors."
Biegler's implication that the previous investigation was "flawed," Jubin said, was "actionable defamation."
Hart said in the statement that he learned of the new allegations from the diocesan news release. He said he would cooperate fully with the current 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. 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 its news release issued Monday.
Former Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan investigated the allegations in 2002 and concluded "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."
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 diocese said its Diocesan Review Board examined the investigator's report and agreed with the assessment. 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."
Sandburg, the Laramie County district attorney, said Tuesday that he wasn’t involved in the previous investigation. He became district attorney in 2015.
He said the Cheyenne diocese contacted him in May about its recent investigation.
"Here in Wyoming, the district attorney's office is not an investigative agency," he said. "I have to turn over all the information to whatever law enforcement agency has the jurisdiction to investigate. I can't comment on the status of anything that they are up to."
A spokesman for the Cheyenne Police Department said Tuesday that Wyoming law prohibits him from commenting on sexual assault cases.
"What I could say is any time somebody brings us allegations of evidence of wrongdoing, if it's a sex assault, even if it occurred in the past, it's something that we do investigations on," Officer Kevin Malatesta said.
And because Wyoming has no criminal statute of limitations, he said, charges could be filed years later.
"Speaking in general," he said, "if new evidence comes to light or we have information that we didn't have at the time of the initial investigation, that could change things."
Biegler said he hoped the new investigation would 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.
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 2002, The Star interviewed the men who had lodged the complaints in Kansas City and reported that the diocese had helped one of them buy a pickup truck and paid for his counseling. The diocese also paid counseling bills for two sisters of the other alleged victim.
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.
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."
Some who lodged allegations about Hart told The Star that the news from Wyoming was welcome but too long in coming.
"It really is emotional, because it goes so deep," said Darrel Hunter, whose late brother, Mike, was among 47 plaintiffs who reached a $10 million settlement with the diocese in the 2008 case, which accused 12 priests of sexual abuse. "When we were growing up, Hart was like a member of our family.
"There's a sense of relief that maybe it's kind of moving along. But this had such an impact on the life of our family over such a long period of time that I don't know that it's ever going to go away."
Brian Heydon, a licensed professional counselor who grew up in the St. Regis parish, said he has contacted the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese repeatedly over the years to raise concerns about several priests, including Hart.
“I wrote the first letter more than 20 years ago, and just now they're starting to take care of the issue," he said. "Why did it take so long?
"I feel vindicated at some level, and I think the world is a safer place when these people are outed. But I'm also angry that this system is so slow to act because they are so self-protectionist."