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  Hart Cleared of Sex Abuse

By Kelly Milner
Wyoming Tribune-Eagle
July 30, 2002

CHEYENNE -- An investigation has cleared retired Bishop Joseph Hart of allegations of sexual abuse of a minor.

Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan announced Tuesday that an investigation found there was no evidence to support the allegations. The investigation recommended the case be closed.

"I am obviously pleased by the findings of the Cheyenne Police, but in no way surprised, as I was aware of my innocence," Hart said in a prepared statement released Tuesday.

In April, a relative of the 39-year-old alleged victim contacted law enforcement with the accusations. The man later said Hart coerced him into exposing himself when he was 13 or 14.

The alleged incidents took place in Cheyenne and Kansas City, Mo., when Hart was auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne. He retired as bishop last September.

Meenan said in a statement that the allegations are "without merit, and therefore the case must be unfounded."

"The investigator and I both concluded, given all the factors, that there really was no merit to these claims," Meenan said.

The investigation was conducted by the Cheyenne Police Department and led by detective Lt. Jeff Schulz.

Earlier this year, Hart faced two other allegations of sexual misconduct in Kansas City. Church officials there said the accusations lacked credibility.

While Hart cooperated with investigators, Meenan and local law enforcement said the alleged victim did not.

Meenan said the man gave an initial statement, but numerous attempts to contact him later were unsuccessful.

"He refused to cooperate," Meenan said.

Cheyenne Interim Police Chief Patrick Byrne said they conducted an initial interview with the man.

"It was very brief, with some vague allegations," Byrne said. "When we attempted to contact him to try to clarify some points to get better dates, times, specific facts, he would not answer phone calls or respond to our letters."

Byrne would not speculate on what the man's motives were for refusing to talk with law enforcement.

Hart's attorney, Jack Speight, said initially the accuser said he had told his therapist about the incident.

Media reports indicate the alleged victim said he had largely blocked out the abuse until a man made a sexual overture to him.

Law enforcement officers were unable to obtain any of the therapy records, Speight said.

Speight said many psychiatrists questions the validity of the repressed memory syndrome and reviving the repressed memory.

"I sense that's what we're dealing with," he said. "Everything is very vague, years are vague, the story is inconsistent, these kinds of things."

Speight said Hart is relieved that he has been cleared of wrongdoing, though he is concerned his character has been damaged.

"The tragedy with these kinds of accusations is trying to unring the bell that caused his reputation to be tainted," he said.

Paula Glover, spokeswoman for the Diocese of Cheyenne, said it was nice to have Hart back to his "jolly" self again.

"It's like the weight of the world has been taken off his shoulders," Glover said.

The following is the full statement from retired Bishop Joseph Hart released Tuesday:

"I am obviously pleased by the findings of the Cheyenne police, but in no way surprised, as I was aware of my innocence. I commend the Cheyenne Police and (Natrona County District Attorney) Mr. (Kevin) Meenan for being prompt, thorough and fair in their work.

"These allegations and the publicity they generated have been devastating to me. Even with this positive conclusion to the police inquiry, my personal reputation was considerably damaged.

"Fortunately, in Wyoming we get to know each other on a personal basis. I thank the many friends whose prayers, trust and good wishes were with me. It was an enormous comfort and verified what I have said many times before -- some of the finest people in the world are right here in Wyoming.

"I still do not know what truly led the person to make these accusations. I would be less than human if I did not acknowledge some anger -- and some sorrow, too -- but I do pray for him and his family and sincerely hope they find peace of mind, heart and spirit in their lives.

"I have cherished serving as the Catholic bishop to the people of Wyoming. Having retired only last September, after 46 years as an active priest and 26 years as a bishop in Wyoming, I am anxious to enjoy a quiet but productive retirement in service to the church in any way that I can be under the capable leadership of my successor, Bishop David Ricken."

 
 

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