Fifth Man Sues Retired Bishop for Sex Abuse
Victims' Group Wants Name Removed from Wing of Children's Home

By Dennis Coday
National Catholic Reporter
September 16, 2005

Kansas City, Mo. - A fifth person who claims he was abused as a boy by Joseph Hart, the retired bishop of Cheyenne, Wyo., filed suit against Hart Aug. 24 in Kansas City, Mo., where Hart served as a priest and where the abuse allegedly took place in the 1970s.

Through his lawyer, Lawrence Ward of Kansas City, Hart denied all accusations. Lawsuits filed against Hart in Kansas City in 2004 are awaiting the outcome of a case being argued in the Missouri Supreme Court this month. That case, from St. Louis, deals with the statute of limitations in cases of childhood sexual abuse.

Victims and their advocates also asked the Cheyenne diocese to remove Hart's name from a building named after him at a church-owned center that treats abused, neglected and delinquent children and teens.

Cheyenne Bishop David Ricken said he saw no reason to change the name of the Hart Children's Center, because "none of the accusations against Bishop Hart have been deemed credible."

The latest suit was filed in the name of John Doe E.K. and also names the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese as a defendant. Hart was ordained a priest for the diocese in 1956 and served here until 1976 when he was ordained bishop of Cheyenne.

The lawsuit was made public Aug. 26 at a news conference held outside the Kansas City-St. Joseph chancery by members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests -- SNAP.

Ward told NCR that the plaintiffs and their lawyer "are using the press to try and effectuate a financial result in these lawsuits."

Another news conference was held simultaneously outside the diocesan offices in Cheyenne, Wyo., where SNAP called for removing Hart's name from a building at St. Joseph's Children's Home in Torrington, Wyo., a residential treatment facility for youth ages six to 18. The home is owned and operated by the Cheyenne diocese. Hart served as president of the home's board of directors for some 25 years.

In response to a reporter's question, Ricken said Hart's name would stay on the building.

Ricken's response was faxed to NCR Aug. 29. He said, "In this wonderful country, a person is innocent until proven guilty. 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," said Ricken, who succeeded Hart in 2001.

According to the Cheyenne diocese, no lawsuits have been filed against Hart in Wyoming.

SNAP president Barbara Blaine, who was in Cheyenne for the news conference, told NCR Ricken's answer disappoints her.

Honoring Hart in this way "shows a lack of sensitivity to the alleged victims," she said, and keeping Hart's name on a public facility intimidates other victims from coming forward.

"When are we going to err on the side of protecting children?" she asked.

The plaintiff in the latest suit against Hart is a Kansas City man who was about 12 years old in 1973 or 1974 and a volunteer answering the telephone at the rectory of St. John Francis Regis Parish when Hart allegedly molested him. According to the lawsuit, later in 1973 or 1974, while Hart and the plaintiff were playing basketball, the priest groped and fondled the plaintiff, "passing it off as mere sport."

The plaintiff is now married and has children. He works in construction. He claims the incidents led him to alcohol abuse, with which he still struggles.

In a statement read at the Aug. 24 news conference on his behalf, the man wrote: "I was so paranoid with my kids. They were going to Communion classes and [I] would ask if they had been hurt or touched. From that time on, I have not gone back to Mass and they haven't been brought up the way I thought I wanted them brought up.

"I want the church to clean up their act. I want the accountability and proof that the church is doing the right thing," the statement said. His lawsuit asks for a jury trial and unspecified damages for lost earnings and continued expenses for medical and psychological treatment.

The plaintiff is represented by Kansas City lawyer Rebecca M. Randles who is representing plaintiffs in the other lawsuits against Hart. Phone calls to Randles were not returned.

An Aug. 24 statement from the vicar general of Kansas City-St. Joseph said, "The diocese has no particular information about the lawsuit or the individual alleging abuse."

The statement offered this summary of abuse allegations against Hart:

"In 1989 and 1992, Bishop Hart was the subject of two separate complaints received by the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. The complaints alleged abuse by Bishop Hart in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although Bishop Hart steadfastly denied these statements, he asked our diocese to process the complaints in accordance with local policies and procedures. In addition to undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, Bishop Hart agreed that all of the information about these complaints should be reported to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the papal nuncio. The psychiatric evaluation reported that, 'Bishop Hart does not appear to be a threat to himself or others on any level.' Bishop Hart returned to ministry in Wyoming and retired in 2001."

The Casper, Wyo., Star-Tribune reported that in 2002 authorities in Wyoming investigated allegations that Hart abused a boy in the 1970s in Cheyenne and Kansas City. A prosecutor concluded that the claims were not corroborated and some were contradictory, the paper reported.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer.