Crime

Wyoming police who investigated ex-KC priest recommend charges in sex abuse cases

‘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.

Wyoming police are recommending that charges be filed against a member of the Catholic clergy and a person who was seeking membership in the clergy who police allege sexually abused male juveniles in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Though the suspects are not named, The Star previously reported that Cheyenne police were investigating allegations against Joseph Hart, a former Kansas City priest who later served as bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne.

Hart would be the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric in the country to be charged with sexual abuse of a minor.

In a news release Wednesday, the Cheyenne Police Department said the suspects were not named because of a Wyoming law designed to protect the identity of victims in sex abuse cases.

However, the news release said that “the investigation stems from a case initiated in 2002 that was reopened in 2018 when new information was produced and provided to the Cheyenne Police Department by an independent investigation conducted by the Wyoming Diocese of the Catholic Church.”

“Detectives with the CPD utilized this new information to further investigate the 2002 case and in the process found other victims and offenders,” police said.

The subject of that case was Bishop Hart.

Police said the alleged crimes still can be investigated and prosecuted because Wyoming does not have a statute of limitations.

Hart was a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976, then served as bishop or auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001.

Allegations against Hart first surfaced in 1989 and 1992, with two Missouri men alleging that Hart had sexually abused them when they were boys and he was a priest in Kansas City. Church officials at the time found those allegations not credible, but the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese helped one of the men buy a pickup and paid for his counseling. The diocese also paid for counseling for two sisters of the other man. Last year, the diocese said it now deemed those allegations to be credible.

Cheyenne police said Wednesday that affidavits of probable cause were filed with the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office following the Cheyenne Police Department’s year-and-a-half long investigation into allegations that juvenile males were the victims of sex abuse by members of the Catholic clergy.

Hart, 87, could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday, and his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Over the years, he has categorically denied all allegations against him. Last fall, he told a Star reporter who knocked on his door that “I’ve been told not to talk, but you could call my lawyer.” He was on oxygen at the time but said, “I feel fine. Doing great.”

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese told The Star in 2002 that it had informed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Papal Nuncio of the complaints against Hart. The vicar general told The Star, however, that there was no indication in the diocese’s records that law enforcement authorities had ever been notified.

The Kansas City diocese said it had recommended that Hart undergo a full psychiatric evaluation and that he had done so at an institution in Tucson, Ariz., in February 1993. The month-long evaluation found that Hart “does not appear to be a threat to himself or others on any level,” the diocese said, and he returned to his ministry in Cheyenne.

In 2002 ­— 10 years after the second Kansas City allegation — a Wyoming man accused Hart of sexually abusing him as a boy. Wyoming authorities concluded there was no evidence to support the allegations. But last July, the new Bishop of Cheyenne announced that the diocese had reopened its investigation into Hart.

Former Kansas City priest Joseph Hart later served as Bishop of Cheyenne for 23 years. Now, he is under investigation for child sex abuse as the new Wyoming bishop tackles the issue head-on.

The previous investigation was flawed, Bishop Steven Biegler said, adding that a second man had come forward alleging sexual abuse by Hart and that both men’s allegations had now been deemed “credible and substantiated.” Not only that, Biegler said, the diocese was cooperating with a new police investigation, and he hoped the Vatican also would find the allegations to be credible and take disciplinary action.

At the end of August last year, the Diocese of Cheyenne said it had received a third credible sexual abuse allegation against Hart, bringing to more than a dozen the number of allegations that have been lodged against him.

According to the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, Hart was named by 10 individuals in lawsuits regarding child sexual abuse claims in that diocese dating from the 1970s. Those claims were part of multi-million-dollar settlements the diocese entered into in 2008 and 2014 in cases involving numerous victims and priests.

Hart’s attorney, Thomas Jubin, issued a statement last August blasting the Cheyenne Diocese and saying Hart “continues to deny any sexual impropriety.”

“Once again, the Diocese of Cheyenne is engaging in a smear campaign in an effort to try to influence public opinion with considerably less than the full story,” Jubin said. “The Diocese of Cheyenne continues to refuse to inform Bishop Hart what the allegations are that have been made against him and who is making them.”

News of the recommended charges comes as the Catholic church is facing increased scrutiny in the wake of a Pennsylvania grand jury report last summer that found church leaders there had covered up sexual abuse by hundreds of priests over seven decades.

The report contained disturbing details of some of the abuse and prompted calls for change from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. In Kansas City and around the country, sex abuse victims called for authorities to conduct grand jury investigations similar to Pennsylvania’s, and bishops across the country have been under pressure to release the names of their credibly accused priests.

More than half the dioceses across the country — including the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas — and some religious orders have released lists in recent months.

The Diocese of Cheyenne published a list on its website and in the diocesan newspaper in June, naming 11 priests — including Hart —it said had substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons lodged against them.

In a four-page letter titled “Where Sin Increases, Grace Abounds,” Biegler wrote that “sexual abuse by clergy is an appalling sin and a reprehensible crime.”

“It contradicts everything we stand for,” Biegler wrote. “Each name on this list represents a betrayal of trust, a violation of the innocent and a human tragedy.”

And at the U.S bishops’ general assembly in June, Biegler announced that Hart will face a Vatican trial over the allegations that he sexually abused minors years ago.

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese has not released a list of credibly accused priests, but in April announced it had hired an investigative and consulting firm run by three former FBI agents to compile one.

The Missouri attorney general’s office also is conducting a review of potential clergy abuse in the state’s dioceses. Critics say, however, that the investigation is not thorough enough and is moving too slowly.

Though Hart would be the first bishop to be charged with abuse of a minor, another Kansas City Catholic cleric also has faced charges in a priest sex abuse case.

In 2011, Bishop Robert W. Finn, then head of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese, was charged with failing to report suspected child sexual abuse involving the Rev. Shawn Ratigan. Finn was found guilty of the misdemeanor in 2012, at the time making him the highest-ranking U.S. Catholic cleric convicted in the church’s decades-long child sex abuse scandal. Finn received two years’ probation and resigned in 2015.

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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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