Police, DA’s office clashed amid Bishop Hart investigation, documents show

Denver Gazette

April 11, 2021

By Seth Klamann

Wyoming police and prosecutors were repeatedly at odds over the sexual abuse investigation into retired Catholic Bishop Joseph Hart, police and prosecutor documents show, with police claiming that prosecutors hadn’t read basic case documents and prosecutors complaining about media attention and their problems with the work by police.

For 10 months between 2019 and 2020, prosecutors in Wyoming were considering whether to charge Hart, now 89. At least eight men told police that they or a relative had been the victim of sexual misconduct by him. The Cheyenne Police Department completed its 16-month investigation in August 2019, turning the case over to the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office. There it would languish for months before prosecutors decided last summer not to file charges against Hart.

Though Hart’s alleged abuse occurred decades ago, it was still open for prosecution because Wyoming has no statute of limitations. Hart, who retired in 2001 after a 46-year career as priest and bishop, allegedly abused boys in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s in Kansas City, Missouri, as well as in Wyoming and on trips around the West. He has faced minor punishments from the church; the Vatican would later exonerate him on charges of sexually abusing minors.

The investigation had the potential to be historic: No American bishop has ever been charged with sexual abuse. But the effort was plagued by months of seeming inaction by prosecutors and poor communication between investigators and the men who’d decide whether to charge Hart. Police say that one of the prosecutors didn’t read documents describing the allegations and that he didn’t know how many victims were contained in the report. When police described the details of the report, which spanned nearly 100 pages, the prosecutor was surprised by its contents, according to an internal police report. The alleged abuse detailed by police investigators ranged from inappropriate touching to physical intimidation and graphic sexual abuse.

In internal communications, prosecutors wrote that they believed the central victim in the case had been victimized by Hart, but that a prosecution would not be successful for a variety of reasons: shifting victim accounts, an erroneous belief that little corroboration existed and a 2002 police investigation that cleared the retired bishop. Police, as well as defense attorneys who reviewed the case for the Denver Gazette and the Casper Star-Tribune, flatly disagreed, describing the decision not to pursue charges as “unforgivable.”

Hart has consistently denied any and all allegations against him. He has never been arrested or charged, and he was cleared earlier this year by the Vatican, though two American dioceses — in Kansas City and Cheyenne — have said his victims are credible. Hart’s attorney, Tom Jubin, reiterated those denials in a brief interview April 2. He said the police investigation correctly ended with no charges against his client.

The police report is the most detailed accounting of the investigation into Hart yet released. It describes a months-long effort by police to arrest Hart and corroborate the many allegations against him, an effort that included details as minute as checking the release date of a Star Wars movie. It states that Hart has been scrutinized for possible sexual abuse going back until the early 1990s at least, and that other victims came forward in Kansas City, years before Hart retired. Despite the allegations, church and police authorities did little about Hart for nearly 30 years.

Allegations of abuse

According to the extensive Cheyenne police report, one man told officers that in 1980, Hart invited him to stay for a weekend at his house in Cheyenne. When the then-teenager was using a shower in the home, he caught Hart, then the Catholic bishop in Wyoming, watching him. Another man told investigators that Hart abused him during confession. A third said Hart directed him to change clothes in front of him, while others described being groped by the then-cleric or being forced to engage in sexual acts. Another said he was sexually abused by Hart in Wyoming after the cleric flew him out from Kansas City.

In this Sept. 19, 1988, file photo the Rev. Joseph Hart dispenses communion during an outdoor Mass celebrated for participants of the Basque Festival in Buffalo.   Dean Wariner, AP
In this Sept. 19, 1988, file photo the Rev. Joseph Hart dispenses communion during an outdoor Mass celebrated for participants of the Basque Festival in Buffalo. — Dean Wariner, AP

Several described Hart as being especially close with their families, and multiple men came from broken homes. One family, the Hunters, had a photo of Hart hanging on their wall, and their mother worked for the diocese in Kansas City. Hart allegedly abused all three brothers in the family, according to previous statements by the family and accounts described in the police report.

The men described to police how Hart’s homes were always stocked with candy and soda. Some described the Town Car-like vehicle he drove. They alleged that he used his position to intimidate them and that he threatened to withdraw the church’s support from their families if they spoke up.

“The church has been very good to your family for a long time and taken care of you,” Hart allegedly told one victim who — according to the police report — wasn’t responding to Hart’s alleged demands. “It would be a shame if all of that were to stop because of the way you’re behaving right now.”

“You’re a good boy,” the then-bishop allegedly told another victim after discouraging him against speaking out. “Don’t get in trouble.”

Another described feeling the need, as a teenager, to “check with Jesus to make sure everything (Hart) was doing was OK.” As he stood before the altar, he prayed. “Please give me a sign if this is OK, and I should trust him,” the victim said, according to police documents.

Many of the details described by the alleged victims were corroborated, either by other witnesses or in details observed by police. The then-teenager who said he saw Hart watching him in the shower described the nozzles in the shower and bed he slept in at Hart’s home. Both descriptions were later confirmed by police.

The victim at the center of the investigation, identified by The Gazette and the Star-Tribune under the pseudonym Martin, alleges that Hart abused him at the bishop’s residence in Cheyenne in the mid-1970s, and during a trip out of Cheyenne, Hart directed him to undress and change into a swimsuit in front of him. He also alleges Hart groped him. Relatives of Martin corroborated parts of his story that he shared with police, including him often being alone with Hart. Martin’s sister described him going into Hart’s home alone and then emerging, red-faced and upset, and speeding away on a bike.

Police spoke with Martin’s mother, who worked for the diocese and described Hart as “specifically” asking for Martin to come clean up around his home.

There are details of Martin’s story that changed between the 2002 police inquiry into Hart and the more recent one. But the core of his allegation — that Hart abused him in Hart’s residence while Martin was working for him — has remained the same.

Hart has consistently and completely denied all allegations against him. His attorney, Jubin, has previously denied all allegations contained in the police report that were previously made public, and he did so again April 2.

Police, prosecutors bicker

Armed with these and more accounts, Cheyenne police took the unusual step of publicly announcing that the former cleric should be charged. They handed the case over to prosecutors in August 2019.

But for months after an initial meeting, police and prosecutors didn’t talk, according to an internal report and letters exchanged. The documents detail a prosecution concerned with the “he said, he said” nature of the case, as well as with pressure brought by Hart’s defense attorney. They describe police investigators frustrated with slow responses from prosecutors, who they allege did not even read the entirety of the police report or other investigative documents. Then-Cheyenne police Chief Brian Kozak wrote that he thought Michael Schafer was a legal aide, not a prosecutor.

After District Attorney Dan Itzen and Schafer, one of his assistant prosecutors, told police and one victim in June last year that they would not be charging Hart, Cheyenne police protested. They argued the investigation — which included statements from more half a dozen victims and witnesses — was strong and worthy of prosecution. The disagreement culminated in a meeting and Casper prosecutors briefly agreeing to reconsider the case. By July, however, they again announced their decision not to move forward with charges.

For their part, Itzen and Schafer sent Kozak a letter outlining some of their concerns. They asked if any of the victims in the lengthy police report had ever sued the church and if they’d made any sworn statements or testified at a deposition. They questioned why another priest who allegedly had committed sex abuse was not interviewed. Cheyenne police wrote in their case report that the priest in question was misidentified by a victim.

In that letter and a follow-up, Itzen’s office complained about media attention and poor communication with police. Prosecutors wrote that they’d tried to get in touch with detectives multiple times, with no success.

“No phone calls were returned,” the prosecutors wrote Kozak, “and the only information we receive regarding the Cheyenne Police Department investigation we read about in the Casper Star-Tribune.”

In turn, Cheyenne police leveled the same accusations at prosecutors. In a supplemental report he attached to the case file, Kozak, who stepped down as chief in early January, wrote that repeated calls to Itzen and Schafer were not returned. At least twice, he writes that the prosecutors declined to speak to him because they were “too busy.” The Star-Tribune sent Schafer a detailed list of questions on Thursday morning. He did not respond to them by Friday.

In their June letter, Schafer and Itzen wrote that there was no “additional corroboration” to support the central victim’s account. Police investigators believed the prosecutors didn’t fully understand the case, and when they met in person, pointed out the numerous witnesses and corroboration.

“Schafer seemed surprised by the information of additional witnesses,” Kozak wrote. “Detective (Micah) Veniegas brought attention to his affidavit, which outlined this evidence. It appeared Schafer had not read the affidavit nor the (police) report. I recommended he take a week to review the report and call me back with his decision.”

Kozak also asked Schafer to consider impaneling a grand jury to consider charges. He offered to assign a detective full time to help prosecutors. But prosecutors again chose not to prosecute. Itzen’s office wrote to police that they felt that the central victim in the case “was a victim of Bishop Hart. We just do not believe there would be successful prosecution.”

Acrimony and criticisms

Reached by phone April 2, Itzen told the Star-Tribune that four prosecutors, including himself and his predecessor, looked at the case.

“We asked for follow-up investigation and never received it,” he said of Cheyenne police. “At some point we had to make the determination to no longer proceed.”

He wouldn’t elaborate on his office’s review of the case and said he couldn’t remember offhand what he thought the investigation had been missing.

Repeated messages sent to Kozak and Cheyenne police seeking comment were not returned in recent weeks. But police have said they completed their follow-up investigations. In his internal report, Kozak wrote that the prosecutors’ decision not to move forward with charges “may be based on a lack of communication between our offices.”

Based on the documents, much of the hand-wringing by prosecutors was based on the 2002 investigation by Cheyenne police that went nowhere. The police investigator said the case faltered because Martin stopped participating; Martin said he stopped participating because the investigator was aggressive and seemed more interested in clearing Hart’s name.

In any case, that decision not to charge Hart in 2002 reverberated into the new decision not to prosecute. Itzen and Schafer wrote that the original investigative case file was lost and that the 2002 investigator had said Hart “made me believe it didn’t happen” and that the bishop “didn’t seem like a guilty man.”

“All this information would ultimately be provided in discovery and used by a skilled defense attorney to wreak havoc on the testimony of police investigator (Jeff) Schulz and (Martin),” prosecutors wrote.

Three Wyoming defense attorneys — one of whom was a prosecutor for several years — reviewed the case for The Gazette and the Star-Tribune. Their conclusion: Casper prosecutors gave Hart an “unforgivable” pass. John Robinson, one of the attorneys, said the investigation appeared “very thorough,” though he said none of the three attorneys “has seen any case where records in a case like this get destroyed.”

“Even with the destruction of documents, there’s enough to prosecute and none of us can understand why any reasonable prosecutor would not move forward with prosecution,” he said. “If a prosecutor was uncomfortable with pursuing a case against someone in a higher office like a priest or a cop, there’s a grand jury option in Wyoming. You can always subpoena a grand jury to come in and weigh the evidence and make their own determination.”

Asked about victim statements that shifted between 2002 and 2018, Robinson said that was “always problematic if you’re a prosecutor, but they’re common.” He said the presence of multiple victims, in Wyoming and Missouri, would overcome such inconsistencies.

“If you can say, ‘Yeah this victim’s statements are inconsistent, but that’s not uncommon, and on top of that, look at all of the other victims, and the pattern and the modus operandi that was utilized,’” he said. “So it’s a way to overcome. Inconsistent statements are difficult, but they’re not that big of an obstacle, especially in sex assault cases and especially when you have multiple victims.”

“It just seems like they were going to throw up every roadblock they could to keep from prosecuting this guy,” Robinson said.

In an interview, Martin, the central victim to the case, was also critical of the prosecutors. He was “overjoyed” and “probably even cried” when police recommended Hart be charged in August 2019. But that soured as the months passed. He said he was never contacted by prosecutors; he only spoke with Schafer after Martin requested a call so the prosecutor could explain his office’s decision.

“I made repeated calls for an update, and they never returned my call, they never took the call, and they would never put me in touch with Schafer and Itzen,” Martin said.

On the eventual call with Schafer, Martin said the prosecutor lost his temper and yelled at him and his wife repeatedly. Martin said he also asked about impaneling a grand jury, and that Schafer replied that it would cost money to put up jurors in hotels.

Martin said he didn’t expect Hart to end up in prison. But two decades after he first came forward, he wanted prosecutors to at least try.

“That’s the thing. It’s not just one (prosecutor’s) office,” he said. “I can’t just look at one person who bungled. No, everybody was just a little bit s—-ty at the wrong moment, and then we never got the burden over the wall.

“Honestly, the shame that has — I will use that word — haunted me my whole life, and never being able to tell anyone, to finally … you gird yourself to put it all out there.”

In the decades since he was abused, Martin has confronted that shame and come forward: to police, to the Vatican, to journalists, to prosecutors. From his perspective, the tragedy is not that he didn’t try. It’s that he feels few others did.