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  Hart Faces More Allegations

By Scott Canon
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle
May 15, 2002

CHEYENNE — Police are investigating allegations that a retired Roman Catholic bishop accused of sexual abuse twice while a priest in Kansas City committed similar acts in Wyoming.

Laramie County District Attorney Jon Forwood confirmed Tuesday that he has referred the latest accusations against retired Bishop Joseph Hart to local law enforcement authorities.

The man who made the complaint this month to authorities told The Kansas City Star that he was coerced as a 14-year-old into repeatedly exposing himself in front of Hart in 1977, while Hart was auxiliary bishop in Wyoming.

Hart referred questions to his attorney, who issued a news release Tuesday stating that Hart welcomed the investigation because he wants to "put an end to these false allegations.

"I state clearly, without any equivocation, that I have never engaged in any improper sexual behavior involving minors in my more than 46 years as a priest," Hart said in the statement.

In an interview, Hart's attorney, Jack Speight, said that "it's a horrific, outrageous accusation by an unnamed victim. In our due process system, you need to know who's accusing you. ... Sooner or later we'll know who the alleged victim is, and more detail on the circumstances ... and we may have some additional comment at that time."

Lt. Jeff Schulz of the Cheyenne Police Department said he has talked briefly with the 38-year-old man making the allegations, who asked not to be identified because he feared publicity could jeopardize his employment. Schulz said he also has contacted the diocese in Cheyenne and gained a pledge of cooperation from the accused priest.

Both Schulz and the district attorney, however, stressed that the investigation is only in its preliminary stages.

"It comes down to, really, a matter of credibility," Forwood said.

In Wyoming, there is no statute of limitations.

If true, the alleged acts would likely be illegal under Wyoming law, which imposes up to 10 years in prison for "taking immodest, immoral or indecent liberties with a child," said Kevin Meenan, a district attorney in Casper and president of the National District Attorneys Association.

Schulz said he is awaiting a letter from the alleged victim detailing his recollections and an account from his therapist establishing that he made the claims before recent publicity linking Hart to accusations of sexually abusing boys.

This latest allegation comes as dozens of similar charges are surfacing against Catholic priests in America. The number and severity of the accusations prompted a meeting of American cardinals at the Vatican in Rome during April. The cardinals are slated to meet again in June in the United States to discuss how to deal with the issue of sexual abuse by priests.

But this allegation differs from two earlier allegations in that police will investigate it.

Church officials investigated the two other claims, made in Missouri. Those two allegations against Hart surfaced publicly about a month ago, dating back three decades to the time when Hart was a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Hart has denied those allegations; he said he first learned about them about 10 years ago.

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

In one case, the family of alleged victim Kevin Hunter first brought the allegation in 1992, three years after Hunter's death in 1989.

The Missouri diocese investigated the allegations and found the 1989 complaint lacked credibility for a number of reasons.

After the second allegation, Hart agreed to an evaluation by Sierra Tucson, a psychiatric hospital and behavioral health center, in Tucson, Ariz. The hospital found Hart was not a threat to himself or others, and he returned to work in Cheyenne.

The man making the latest allegations told The Kansas City Star that he decided to contact Wyoming authorities to lend credibility to other claims leveled against Hart.

"I'm just a little angry that he can issue this sanctimonious denial," the man said. "I'm not saying I was raped or anything like that . . . I just remember that my childhood was pretty difficult and it was made worse by his treatment of me . . ."

Hart was a parish priest in Kansas City from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s. He was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Cheyenne diocese in 1976 and became head of that diocese in 1978. He retired in September.

Hart's latest accuser, now living on the East Coast, said he regularly saw the priest because the church did much to support his family after his father abandoned them. His mother got a job through the church and the man, then 14, earned money from Hart performing chores.

He concedes, however, his memory is fuzzy and that he had largely blacked out the alleged abuse — until a man made a sexual overture to him when he was about 30 years old.

Now he said he recalls being at Hart's residence and that he would coax him into uncomfortable situations.

"It was a very voyeuristic thing," the man said. "Somehow when I was with the bishop, I always had to get naked . . . I had to show him what I did when I had my impure thoughts."

He alleges that Hart would insist that, as part of confession, he touch his genitals while the priest watched. Once when he resisted, the man claims, Hart reminded him "your father left and we gave your mother a job."

The man said he also has memories of being taken on out-of-town trips, including once to Kansas City. He alleged he typically shared a bed with Hart on those journeys and has unpleasant recollections of being told to change into a swimsuit in front of Hart.

"Because of that, I haven't owned a bathing suit in 25 years," the man said. "I just have this sense of dread about them."

A social worker, Linda Ford Blaikie, said the man began seeing her for therapy after a traumatic, nonsexual assault. Blaikie said he made the claims of abuse by a member of the clergy at least five years ago.

Blaikie said that fewer than one in 10 of her clients talks of childhood sexual abuse, and she often is skeptical of such accounts. But she thinks the man's account is credible because his recollection is of being told to expose himself — milder than most perceptions of child abuse.

"If (the man was) going to make that up, it would either be less specific ... or something more dramatic," she said.

The man said he has spoken to an associate of St. Paul, Minn., attorney Jeffrey Anderson, who has become a leading lawyer mounting civil cases against the church for child sexual abuse.

 
 

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