Sex abuse survivors dreaded priest’s return to KC. They weren’t told he never arrived

Kansas City Star [Kansas City MO]

June 1, 2023

By Judy L. Thomas

Survivors were outraged last fall when they learned that a retired Wyoming bishop and former Kansas City priest facing numerous sexual abuse allegations would be moving back to the Kansas City area.

And now, The Star has learned, Bishop Joseph Hart did not move back to the metro area after all — bringing more outrage to the survivors who were never informed of the change.

“I don’t even know what to say,” said Michael Sandridge, a victim of another credibly accused priest in the Kansas City area. “I feel deceived. They should have at least let people know. It’s called transparency.”

Hart, whose abuse allegations were deemed credible by two U.S. bishops but dismissed by the Vatican in 2021, was to move to Kansas City in October and reside in a senior living facility. Now 91, Hart had left Kansas City more than four decades ago to become bishop of Cheyenne.

But a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Cheyenne told The Star in an email that “in fact, Bishop Hart did not relocate to Kansas City.”

“Bishop Hart never left Cheyenne,” the diocese said. “We, in the Chancery Office, do not know why. Only he can answer the question regarding why he chose not to relocate to Kansas City.”

That disclosure comes as “Procession,” a highly acclaimed documentary about priest sex abuse, is scheduled to be shown in a free screening Friday at an Overland Park theater. Sandridge is one of the men featured in the film. Another, New York City contractor Ed Gavagan — who grew up in Cheyenne — was among Hart’s victims.

The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had contacted some of the sexual abuse survivors last fall to let them know Hart would be returning to the area.

Bishop Steven Biegler of the Diocese of Cheyenne confirmed Hart’s relocation in a statement to The Star at the time, saying that Hart had decided to move to Kansas City and that “he is free to decide to relocate and reside where he wishes.”

“Nevertheless,” Biegler said, “he is to observe certain limitations in his social interaction because Pope Francis imposed upon Bishop Hart the prohibition that he refrain from any contact with minors, youth, seminarians, and vulnerable adults and from presiding or participating anywhere in any public celebration of the Liturgy.”

When asked about Hart’s current status, the Cheyenne diocese said it remains responsible for Hart’s care.

“Because Pope Francis did not dismiss Bishop Hart from the clerical state, the Diocese of Cheyenne is obligated canonically to provide for his care,” it said. “The sustenance provided includes a minimum pension per month, which is covered by the retirement plan for clergy; housing and board; and healthcare.”

Many sex abuse survivors were stunned to learn that Hart hadn’t moved to Kansas City after all.

“Wow, I had no idea,” Gavagan said Wednesday. “We all thought he was in Kansas City. Apparently, nobody wanted him.”

Gavagan said Biegler contacted him last year to let him know Hart was moving to Kansas City.

The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese told The Star in an email Wednesday that “when we learned that Bishop Hart would not be relocating to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Office of Child and Youth Protection reached out to families that were directly affected by Hart to provide an update and offered support and counseling services.”

But Sandridge, who was notified by the diocese last year about Hart’s plans to return to Kansas City, said the news impacted more than his victims.

“What they don’t get is his moving here affected every survivor, whether or not they were a direct victim of Hart,” he said.

Hart is one of the abusive priests named in “Procession.” Friday’s screening will be at 7 p.m. at the Glenwood Arts Theater in Overland Park.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker Robert Greene, the film brought together six men — all but Gavagan are from Missouri — who wrote and acted out fictional scenes based on their memories of the sexual abuse. With the assistance of a trained drama therapist, the project was designed to collectively work through their trauma. The men — Gavagan, Sandridge, Joe Eldred, Mike Foreman, Dan Laurine and Tom Viviano — accompanied one another to places where the abuse occurred and took on roles in one another’s segments.

“I hope that the screening will allow our pain and our healing to be shared in a way that both transforms and motivates the audience,” said Gavagan, whose allegations against Hart led to criminal investigations in Wyoming. “We must insist on accountability and transparency for the institutions and care and treatment for the victims.”

Much of “Procession” was filmed in the Kansas City area, and most of the priests who are named as abusers served in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. One was with the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas. Four of the men in the film have received settlements from civil lawsuits, but none of the accused priests has ever been criminally charged.

The film, acquired by Netflix and released in the fall of 2021, has received many honors, including nominations for an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, an Independent Spirit Award and being shortlisted for an Academy Award.

Friday’s screening will be followed by a Q&A session with the survivors featured in the film.

Sandridge said the session will focus on what has happened locally since the film was released, including a report issued by the Kansas attorney general in January that said a four-year investigation into sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses identified 188 clergy members suspected of committing criminal acts. The session also will address a bill just signed into law in Kansas that eliminates the statute of limitations on criminal prosecution for alleged child sexual abuse and gives survivors more time to file lawsuits.

State Sen. Cindy Holscher, an Overland Park Democrat who pushed for the legislation, will attend the screening to discuss the law’s impact.

Sandridge said the organizers invited staff from the two Kansas City area dioceses to attend.

The Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas said Jenifer Valenti, director of the Office for Protection and Care, and Amy Stork, victim care advocate/restorative practitioner, “look forward to attending the screening.”

“Both women have already viewed the production and have been profoundly impacted by both the content of the documentary as well as the courage of the survivors depicted,” the archdiocese said in a statement to The Star.

Valenti said while grateful for the opportunity to speak at the screening, “we want to honor the journey and experience of the men featured in the film and all those responsible for its production.”

“We are sensitive to the fact that our statements and verbal participation, however well-intentioned, might cause hurt and distract from the intentions and goals of the screening,” she said. “We therefore won’t be participating in the Q&A. We continue to learn from the documentary and the opportunity for continued dialogue on this topic we care deeply about.”

The Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese said its victim assistance coordinator and the director of Journey to Bethany, a diocesan initiative created to help clergy sexual abuse victims heal, would attend the screening as well.

Gavagan told The Star that the documentary “was a life-changing experience.”

“By working through each of our abuse scenarios with the support and encouragement of the entire cast and crew,” he said, “we were all able to put the shame we have carried our whole lives squarely where it belongs — on the perpetrators and their enablers.”

Hart was a priest in the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese from 1956 to 1976, then served as auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne from 1976 to 1978 and bishop from 1978 until retiring in 2001.

Allegations against Hart first surfaced in 1989 and 1992 in Kansas City. Diocesan officials originally deemed those allegations not credible, but in 2018, Bishop James V. Johnston found them to be substantiated.

In 2002, Gavagan accused Hart of sexually abusing him as a boy. Authorities in Cheyenne concluded there was no evidence to support the allegations. But in July 2018, Biegler — then the new bishop of Cheyenne — announced that the diocese had reopened its investigation into Hart.

Biegler said the previous investigation was flawed and said a second man had come forward alleging sexual abuse by Hart. Both men’s allegations, Biegler said, had now been deemed “credible and substantiated.”

Wyoming authorities, spurred by the Cheyenne diocese, opened a new investigation, and in August 2019, the Cheyenne Police Department recommended that Hart be charged. But a special prosecutor assigned to the case declined to file charges in 2020, citing insufficient evidence.

And though both Biegler and Johnston had determined that the allegations against Hart were credible, the Vatican cleared him in 2021 of seven accusations that he sexually abused minors and said five others could not be proven “with moral certitude.”

But the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also issued a canonical rebuke to Hart “for his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips, which could have been potential occasions endangering the ‘obligation to observe continence’ and that would ‘give rise to scandal among the faithful.’”

Gavagan said the only downside to the documentary has been the realization that so little has been done by the church, district attorneys and lawmakers to address the problems that survivors have laid out so clearly.

“Each of these supposed guardians and protectors of our children have failed to actively and decisively take action to prosecute the offenders,” he said. “They have failed to investigate these crimes and failed to enact comprehensive laws and safeguards for the future.

“What little has been done has come piecemeal and without actually dismantling the shield of secrecy and denial that adds insult to the injury of childhood sexual abuse.”

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. 816-234-4334