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  Hart: Sexual Charges Not True

By Jessica Lowell
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle
April 25, 2002

CHEYENNE -- Two allegations of sexual misconduct in the past against retired Diocese of Cheyenne Bishop Joseph Hart were revealed Wednesday by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

The claims surfaced in Kansas City, Mo., where Hart was a priest for two decades before he came to Cheyenne in 1976 as an auxiliary bishop. He was ordained bishop in 1978.

In a prepared statement released Wednesday, Hart said both allegations were false.

"Today, in my retirement, these unfounded accusations have caused me great pain," Hart said. "They cause me great embarrassment, even in my innocence."

The Kansas City diocese released the information ahead of an expected story today in The Kansas City Star. The diocese's statement was reported by The Associated Press late Wednesday afternoon.

The Rev. Patrick Rush, vicar general of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, said the accusations were made in 1989 and 1992 over incidents that allegedly took place in the early 1970s with junior high school-aged boys.

Rush did not release the names of the alleged victims.

In a written statement, Rush said a church committee determined the 1989 complaint lacked credibility "for a number of reasons." The victim was offered and received counseling and "some limited financial assistance," Rush said.

A church spokeswoman said Wednesday that such payments should not be considered an admission of guilt. Paula Glover, editor of the Wyoming Catholic Register, said church policy is to provide payment in such cases.

Patrick Noaker, an attorney at a Minnesota law firm that specializes in representing abuse victims, confirmed Wednesday he represents an alleged victim of Hart's, but he said he was not at liberty to release the name.

Noaker said he has interviewed a third alleged victim, but does not represent that person.

"The information I have heard is credible," he said. "It appears reliable, and I don't believe these are isolated incidents."

Noaker said neither is a brand new allegation, and his law firm still is developing the facts in the cases.

In the 1992 complaint, the family of the alleged victims brought the charge three years after the victim's death.

The Wyoming Tribune-Eagle has learned that victim's name was Kevin Hunter.

Rush said Hunter's family did not seek money, but asked the diocese investigate the matter.

In an interview with the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle earlier this month, Rush said Hart cooperated with the Missouri diocese's investigation.

"We don't have jurisdiction over other dioceses," he said.

In 1993 Hart underwent a psychiatric evaluation at Sierra Tucson in Tucson, Ariz. The institution, not affiliated with the church, found Hart wasn't a threat to himself or others, and he returned to Cheyenne, the diocese said.

Both the Papal Nuncio of the United States and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops were notified of the Hunter allegation.

"My records indicate no financial settlement or confidentiality agreement was executed," Rush said.

The diocese said Hart, who retired as bishop in the fall of last year, always has denied any sexual misconduct with anyone.

David Ricken, bishop of the Cheyenne Diocese, said no allegation has been brought against Hart in the 26 years he has been in Wyoming.

"It is with deep sadness that I recently learned that someone has brought a second-hand allegation of misconduct against my predecessor, Bishop Joseph Hart, for something that supposedly happened more than 30 years ago in Kansas City, Mo.," Ricken said in a prepared statement.

"After discussing this with Bishop Hart, I am confident that he is telling the truth, and he has my complete support."

Glover said church officials believe the allegations against Hart were unfounded. She added that staff members at the diocese were in tears Wednesday when they learned that the story of the allegations would appear in the media.

"I just want to emphasize that people here just love him," she said. "He's highly respected."

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Statement by Bishop Joseph Hart

"I have learned that recently an allegation made against me in 1992 has surfaced. I was accused of having improperly touched a young man 23 years earlier, in 1969, when I was a priest in Kansas City. I had never previously been advised of this allegation. When the allegation surfaced in 1992, the young man had already died at a tragically young age. The allegation was made posthumously by others. I did then -- and do now -- categorically and completely deny any improper conduct with this young man. The allegation is baseless.

"In the current climate, only full and complete disclosure will ensure the integrity of the church. I want to also advise you of a second allegation first made against me in the late 1980s, but repeated in 1992, of a purported incident that had also allegedly occurred many years before. A man came to the Diocese of Kansas City, St. Joseph demanding money as redress, for alleged improprieties on my part.

"This allegation was also false, but in 1992, I submitted myself to the procedures of the authorities of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, in accordance with their policies. They will attest to the fact I was most cooperative and received a thorough evaluation, was cleared and returned to work.

"At that time, the Papal Nuncio of the United States was notified and was made fully aware of the allegation and my subsequent evaluation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was also apprised.

"Today, in my retirement, these unfounded accusations have caused me great pain. They cause me great embarrassment, even in my innocence. You may recall that in 1993, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct. The cardinal's accuser later recanted and the cardinal, showing the example of Christ to the world, not only forgave his accuser, but ministered to him up until the time of the young man's own tragic death.

"Our church is going through a great trial caused by the sordid acts of a very small number of priests. These misdeeds require a critical self-examination by the church. Those wronged deserve justice. But not every accusation is just."

 
 

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