Wyoming Prosecutor to Re-examine Ex-kc Priest’s Sex Abuse Case, Police Say
By Judy L. Thomas
Kansas City Star
June 19, 2020
A bizarre twist surfaced Friday in what was thought to be the closed criminal sexual abuse case of a former Kansas City priest who later became a Wyoming bishop.
The prosecutor, whose office last week informed one of the alleged victims that no charges would be filed against retired Bishop Joseph Hart, is now going to re-examine the case, according to Cheyenne police, who conducted the investigation.
Police spokesman David Inman said Friday that Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen in Casper, who was serving as special prosecutor on the case, had “misinterpreted” part of the probable cause statement that police had sent him. The document recommended that charges be filed against Hart, who retired as Bishop of Cheyenne in 2001.
“Basically, some new information came to light during our meeting,” Inman said, “and now they’re going to re-examine what they have.”
Inman said Cheyenne police spoke with Itzen in a conference call Friday.
“It was something that we brought to his attention in the PC (probable cause) affidavit,” he said. “Upon reviewing all the paperwork, they looked at something and they’d misinterpreted what was said. So now, there’s an understanding of what we were trying to get across.”
Inman said police would talk to Itzen again next week “and see where we’re going to go from there.”
Itzen could not be reached for comment. Cheyenne is in Laramie County, but Itzen was appointed as special prosecutor in the case because of a conflict of interest within the Laramie County District Attorney’s office.
The alleged abuse occurred decades ago, but Wyoming — unlike most states — has no statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions, which means charges can be filed years later.
If charged, Hart, who served as Bishop of Cheyenne for 23 years, would become the highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric in the country to face criminal prosecution for sexual abuse of a minor.
Hart, 88, also is under investigation by the Vatican for allegations that he sexually abused minors. If found guilty in a Vatican trial, he could be laicized, or removed from the priesthood.
Hart was a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976, then served as auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne from 1976 to 1978 and bishop from 1978 until retiring 23 years later.
Allegations against Hart first surfaced in 1989 and 1992 in Kansas City. In 2002, a former Wyoming man accused Hart of sexually abusing him as a boy. Wyoming authorities concluded there was no evidence to support the allegations. But in July 2018, the new Bishop of Cheyenne announced that the diocese had reopened its investigation into Hart. More people have come forward since then in both Wyoming and Missouri, and to date, at least 18 sexual abuse allegations against Hart have been reported to the two dioceses over the years.
Last week, the bishops of Cheyenne and Kansas City-St. Joseph issued strongly worded statements about the lack of prosecution of Hart. Both dioceses had deemed multiple allegations against Hart to be credible.
Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne and Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese said that the decision didn’t mean that the alleged victims were not credible.
“Any victim who has courageously come forward to speak of their abuse is to be commended,” Johnston said. “I stand by the determinations made by the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s Independent Review Board that allegations of sexual abuse against former Bishop Hart are credible.”