Center Will Keep Bishop's Name

By Robert W. Black
Star-Tribune [Cheyenne WY]
August 28, 2005

CHEYENNE -- A victims' advocacy group has been rebuffed in its attempt to have the name of retired Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Hart removed from a residence hall at a Torrington youth home.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, based in Chicago, on Wednesday urged Wyoming Catholic leaders to strip Hart's name from a building at St. Joseph's Children's Home, which is affiliated with the church.

The request came following the third lawsuit filed against the bishop alleging sexual abuse in the 1970s when he was a priest.

Bishop David Ricken, who succeeded Hart as spiritual leader of Wyoming's Catholics in 2001, issued a statement Friday saying there was no reason to change the name of the Hart Children's Center.

"In this wonderful country, a person is innocent until proven guilty," Ricken said. "I am sure any one of us would welcome the protection of the law and the presumption of innocence if we had been accused.

"As far as I know, none of the accusations against Bishop Hart have been deemed credible enough to have been introduced into a court of law, let alone brought to a formal trial. Therefore, there is no cause at the present time to remove his name from the building at St. Joseph's Children's Home."

No criminal charges have been filed; the lawsuits, involving five plaintiffs, are civil.

Hart has vehemently denied the allegations in the past. Attempts to reach him for comment after the latest filing have been unsuccessful. His attorney, Jack Speight, was out of the office Friday. Hart does not have a listed home number.

Barbara Blaine, president of SNAP, said the decision to retain the name goes against the spirit of U.S. bishops' commitment to assist victims.

"We're really disappointed and believe that they're sending the wrong message," she said. "We believe it sends a chilling message to those who have been hurt, and we think the bishop could do much better."

Bob Mayor, executive director of the home for troubled youth, confirmed that the name would not be changed.

"Bishop Hart was president of the board of directors of St. Joseph's Children's Home for 25 years," he said. "He was exemplary in his leadership and guidance, and a personal inspiration for me and a lot of people that work at the children's home."

Friends of Hart said Friday they were shocked and saddened by the latest lawsuit, as they were by the earlier ones.

"I think it's absolutely ridiculous," said Howard Baker of Green River. "They obviously don't know Bishop Hart."

Baker, 69, a retired banker, has known Hart for 28 years.

"My boys have gone camping with him. If there had been any funny business going on, my boys would have screamed to high heaven," he said. "He's one of the most humble, trustworthy individuals that I've ever known."

Paul Lavery of Lenexa, Kan., met Hart 50 years ago when he was 14 and Hart was a newly ordained priest. The two had lunch in Kansas City on Wednesday.

"It's sad for me because I can see the stress it puts on him," Lavery said. "He's a very reverent, holy guy."

While some cases alleging abuse by Catholic priests have some substance, the ones against Hart "always seem to be very vague and very empty," he said.

The latest lawsuit, filed by a man identified only as E.K., alleges that Hart molested him when he was about 12 and groped him while they were playing basketball.

"There is body contact in basketball," Lavery said. "If you're going to go after a guy, let's get pretty heavy here, let's go strong, but they don't have anything to do that with."

Jim Damiani of Edmond, Okla., has known Hart since 1971 when Hart was a priest in Kansas City. He ran the basketball program for the parish and said Hart never scrimmaged with the players and wasn't really into sports, that Damiani had to convince him that such activities were good for keeping youths out of trouble.

Such allegations, even if proven false, are difficult to live down, he said.

"The feeling that is left in the community around you is one of, 'Well, I guess we'll never know, but maybe it's true.' That's what I feel bad about.

"The man has earned a better sunset than that."