Catholic Church Exonerates Hart Despite Earlier Finding Of Credible Abuse Allegations
By Jeff Victor
Wyoming Public Media
January 26, 2021
|St. Mary's Cathedral in Cheyenne, Wyoming.|
This week, the Vatican concluded its own investigation of Wyoming Emeritus Bishop Joseph Hart, ruling that there was not enough evidence to find him guilty of the numerous allegations against him.
Hart led the Catholic Church in Wyoming for more than two decades, from the late 70s to 2001. Since retiring 20 years ago, he has been accused of child abuse by more than a dozen people both in Wyoming and his home state of Missouri.
One alleged victim died of complications from AIDS in 1989. The disease was brought on by years of drug abuse that the victim's family attributes to the trauma he allegedly experienced at the hands of Father Hart.
In 2018, the Diocese of Cheyenne opened an investigation into the once celebrated bishop. A group of mainly non ordained members of the church with backgrounds in fields such as law enforcement and child psychology determined that at least six allegations against Hart were credible, according to a release from the Diocese.
This determination was handed up to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which meant that a bishop and two priests reviewed those and other allegations.
Those clergymen have now released their decision, dismissing seven allegations against Hart, while claiming that five other allegations could not be proven "with moral certitude."
Jeb Barrett, a survivor of clergy abuse in the Mountain West, said the Church's exoneration of Hart is not surprising.
"The Church of Rome has always pretended to be above the law with its self-proclaimed superiority and authority," Barrett said. "I don't understand how anyone can trust an institution with centuries of secrets and exploitation of others."
The Church's decision does chastise Hart for being alone with children and for continuing to appear in public at church events, but Barrett said that is a far cry from the punishment Hart deserves.
"This action is an apparent hand-slap, which I find as offensive as their historic and systematic denial and cover up of his and other clerical sexual crimes against the most vulnerable," Barrett said.
Hart is being represented by Cheyenne attorneys Thomas Jubin and Elizabeth Zerga. They issued a news release Monday praising the church's decision to exonerate.
"The findings of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith exonerating Bishop Hart are both welcome and expected," the release states. "The Church's finding follows two separate but similarly lengthy and diligent investigations conducted by local law enforcement that reached the same conclusion: The allegations made against Bishop Hart are unwarranted."
The release from Hart's lawyers goes on to question the motivations of current Bishop Steven Biegler, who launched the church investigation and has himself described many of the allegations against Hart as credible.
"That Bishop Biegler continues to assert Bishop Hart's guilt despite these findings suggests his interest is not a credible concern for victims but a personal failing or a scandalous personal vendetta against Bishop Hart for reasons that remain unclear," the release states. "Bishop Hart has had to live under the cloud of these allegations for many years, especially so since Bishop Biegler was installed as Bishop of Cheyenne and began this divisive, irresponsible and unfathomable campaign against his predecessor."
Before moving to Wyoming, Hart was a priest in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri - another community in which he faces numerous allegations. Hart was around children for the entirety of his career, sometimes taking over the role of an absent father. During his time in Kansas City, Hart would occasionally take road trips to Wyoming, accompanied solely by a young boy from his parish.
During his years leading the church in Wyoming, Hart was closely involved with the St. Joseph's Children's Home in Torrington. A building there even bore his name until 2015, when it was taken down after a decade of pleading from survivors.