Former Wyo Bishop Sued for Sex Abuse

By Tom Morton
Casper Star-Tribune [Cheyenne WO]
January 24, 2004

Bishop David Ricken of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne "offers continued prayers and support for (retired Bishop Joseph) Hart," who is named in a civil lawsuit alleging that he sexually molested three children while he was bishop in Wyoming and as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City.

Diocesan spokeswoman Paula Glover said Friday that neither Ricken nor Hart would answer any other questions about the lawsuit filed Wednesday in Jackson County (Mo.) Circuit Court by attorney Rebecca Randles, who is representing nine male plaintiffs -- three who are named and six who are anonymous.

While Ricken's statement did not mention prayers for alleged victims, Glover said "there should be."

Hart, Glover added, issued a statement through his Cheyenne attorney Jack Speight in which he denied any wrongdoing.

Hart issued similar statements in April 2002 when three people, now plaintiffs in the lawsuit, made similar allegations.

But those who raised accusations then are now taking their claims to court against Hart, Monsignor Thomas J. O'Brien and The Rev. Thomas Reardon.

All three have been friends since the 1950s and 1960s, Randles said.

Other defendants are the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, its Bishop Raymond J. Boland, and its Vicar General the Rev. Patrick Rush, according to the 210-page complaint.

Hart was a priest in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese from 1957 to 1976, when he was named bishop in the Diocese of Cheyenne, which includes all of Wyoming. He retired in 2001.

In 2002, Rush announced that Hart was twice accused of sexual misconduct with boys. That was the same year the Catholic Church became embroiled in a nationwide scandal over pedophile priests.

In May 2002, the Cheyenne Police Department initiated an investigation about an allegation of abuse that occurred in 1977 when Hart allegedly coerced a 14-year-old boy to expose himself.

Kevin Meenan, who resigned last month as 7th District Attorney before pleading guilty to two felonies and one misdemeanor, was the special prosecutor in that investigation, which cleared Hart of the allegations in July 2002.

The Diocese of Cheyenne is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

However, Hart "still has access to children," Randles said, and that's partly why his alleged victims wanted to sue.

While the alleged abuse occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, the injuries to the plaintiffs remain, she said. "Sexual abuse of any kind, especially with a relationship of trust, creates a developmental injury. The injury doesn't even manifest itself until a later point in time."

The manifestations include suicide, anxiety attacks, failed relationships and marriages, alcohol and drug abuse, inability to trust others, and other problems, Randles said.

The allegations were brought because some of the victims did not recall their abuse until something triggered it, she said.

Others did report complaints of alleged abuse, but church officials did not believe them or told them they were crazy, or threatened them into silence, Randles said.

Some of the alleged victims are doing well and are professional people, while others have been in and out of prison, she said.

Randles and the plaintiffs did not make an attempt to settle their claims with the church because previous attempts by them to get justice went nowhere, she said. "So why bother?"

Since she filed the lawsuit on Wednesday, about 20 more people have contacted Randles' office about alleged abuse by the three defendants, including three more who claim they were victimized by Hart, she said.

One of the plaintiffs is Michael Hunter, the head of the Kansas City chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

While Hunter is not a victim, he recounted in 2002 and again in the lawsuit that his then 14-year-old brother, Kevin, was allegedly abused by Hart on an extended vacation in 1971, according to the complaint.

After Hart became bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, he brought young boys from Wyoming back to Kansas City and engaged in inappropriate sexual activity, according to the complaint.

The lawsuit also states that the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph received reports of some of these acts, including comments by school boys about defendants O'Brien and Reardon's sexual behavior, and that other priests and diocesan personnel knew of or participated in the sexual activities and knew of minors drinking alcohol.

"Defendant Hart was overheard arguing with Defendant Reardon over which one would get a particular boy for the weekend," according to the complaint.

The lawsuit lists 75 counts, including child sexual abuse, breach of fiduciary duty, fraud, infliction of emotional distress, negligence, failure to supervise clergy, and other allegations.

Randles expects a battery of motions to dismiss the case, she said.

If Hart is dropped as a defendant, it will be on a technicality, she added.

Randles also disputes a comment from Hart through his Kansas City attorney Larry Ward that the allegations are baseless.

"It would be against (legal) ethics to file a claim that was baseless," she said.