Wyoming bishop forcing new investigation of former KC priest shows us the way forward

By Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
October 22, 2018

[with video]

We have known for some time that sex abuse wrecks lives, and families. The damage done doesn’t dissipate over time, either, but stretches across generations.

So it’s a bigger deal than it should be that Catholic Bishop Steven Biegler of the Diocese of Cheyenne is trying something new: He’s forced both a police and Vatican reexamination of credible abuse allegations against one of his predecessors, 87-year-old Bishop Joseph Hart, who is from Kansas City and worked in several parishes and the chancery here. Unfortunately, this is unheard of.

Over the years, the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph settled 10 such claims against Hart. Now, the retired bishop stands accused of multiple acts of sexual abuse deemed credible by both the Missouri and Wyoming dioceses where he spent his career.

If you’re wondering what good could possibly come of investigating an old man, plenty of good already has come of it, as The Star detailed in a story.

Kansas City native Kevin Hunter told his family that he was abused on a trip through the Southwest with Hart, for whom his mother worked as a secretary, in the summer of 1971, when he was 14 years old. Hunter’s life fell apart after that trip, and he died in 1989 at only 31. But now, because of Biegler’s efforts, Hunter’s family and others feel that the church has finally heard them.

There is no statute of limitations for the most serious crimes in Wyoming, as should be the case everywhere. And as it turns out, there is no limitation on the possibility for some healing, either, even after all this time.

When Cheyenne police first launched an investigation into Hart in 2002, a priest quoted in the Denver Post said, “No one believes the charges. Bishop Hart is a wonderful man.” Hart himself said the whole business was, yes, “a witch hunt.”

When The Star first reported on Hunter’s allegations that year, diocesan officials here suggested that there wouldn’t have been any follow-up after he left Missouri. “We had no jurisdiction over Bishop Hart. Each bishop is independent in his own realm.”

“Independent” is one way to put it.

“They’ve had de facto immunity,” said Jason Berry, who has led the way in writing about clerical abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church since 1984.

But Berry sees what Biegler has done as a potential model for the church going forward. “He hired an independent investigator, and instead of saying, ‘Oh, poor man is 87,’ he said, ‘I want the facts.’ ”

He wanted to know why the 2002 criminal investigation went nowhere, and as did a 2011 Vatican probe.

So he got the Vatican’s permission to hire an experienced investigator. He turned its results over to the local district attorney and flew to the East Coast to meet the Wyoming man whose story had been dismissed long ago. What’s more, he put out a press release that said the first investigation had been flawed.

He said the diocese was cooperating with a new police investigation and that he hoped the Vatican would take action. A third Wyoming man’s complaint was found credible and substantiated in August.

Hart has continued to deny all wrongdoing, and his attorney called Biegler’s announcement “both shocking and appalling.”

What’s shocking and appalling is that this is a first. But let’s hope it’s the first of many. The lesson for not just the church, but for society as a whole, is that sex crimes can be successfully investigated decades later, and that it’s never too late to try to make things right.

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