KC Diocese Spent Thousands after Two Allegations Recently Retired Wyoming Bishop Denies Accusations
By Judy L. Thomas and Matt Stearns
Kansas City Star
April 25, 2002
Sexual abuse allegations against a Catholic bishop led the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph to spend thousands of dollars on two families in the 1990s. The money went toward counseling sessions and a new pickup truck.
Bishop Joseph Hart of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., spent two decades as a parish priest in Kansas City from the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, when the alleged abuse took place. Hart was appointed auxiliary bishop of the Wyoming diocese in 1976, and in 1978 became head of the diocese, where he served until his retirement last September.
Hart denied the allegations when they first came to light about 10 years ago. He volunteered to go to an Arizona residential facility for an evaluation and treatment for alcohol abuse, said the Rev. Patrick Rush, vicar general of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese. The allegations also were reported to the Papal Nuncio to the United States and to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Rush said.
Rush said there was no indication that law enforcement authorities had ever been notified by the diocese, but added "the victims are certainly free to contact them."
A monthlong psychiatric evaluation at the Arizona facility determined that Hart posed no threat, Rush said. The bishop returned to Cheyenne and continued to lead the state's nearly 50,000 Roman Catholics until he retired last September at age 70. Since January, Hart has been on a sabbatical in California.
In a prepared statement issued Wednesday following inquiries by The Kansas City Star, Hart said he "categorically and completely" denied the allegations.
"Today, in my retirement, these unfounded accusations have caused me great pain," Hart said. "They cause me great embarrassment, even in my innocence."
Typically, priests who return to their ministries after being evaluated in the wake of sexual abuse allegations are monitored, Rush said. He was not sure whether anybody had that responsibility in the bishop's case.
"We had no jurisdiction over Bishop Hart," Rush said. "Each bishop is independent in his own realm."
The current bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, David Ricken, said he had only learned of the allegations against Hart within the last two weeks.
"As far as I know, nobody really knew about it," Ricken said. "Bishop Hart is highly respected here. There is nothing on record, or no one here has ever brought to our attention, any accusation against Bishop Hart of sexual misconduct or anything like that. This came as a complete surprise."
One of the alleged victims, Kevin Hunter, died in 1989. Family members said his life had spiraled downward into a world of drug abuse after Hart took him on a vacation in the summer of 1971 when the boy was 14.
The other alleged victim, who asked to remain anonymous because he has two children, said Hart had sexually abused him when he helped out at the St. John Francis Regis rectory as a sixth- or seventh-grader in the mid-1970s. Hart was the pastor at Regis from 1969 to 1976.
The Hunters were close friends of Hart. He was the family's pastor at Guardian Angels parish in Westport in the early 1960s, and Stella Hunter, Kevin Hunter's mother, worked for the church for 30 years.
The Hunters said Kevin did not tell them about the alleged abuse until the 1980s. Mary Lou Page, one of Kevin's sisters, said the family approached the diocese in 1992 after seeing on television a victim of alleged sexual abuse by a priest.
"Money was never an issue," Page said. "Never was, and never will be. We just didn't want it to happen to anybody else."
After a series of meetings with diocesan officials - including then-Vicar General Norman Rotert and then-Chancellor Richard Carney - the family was told that Hart had been evaluated and that he was too old to pose a threat to anyone else, several family members recalled. Hart was then about 60 years old.
Rotert and Carney referred questions to the diocese. Rush said there was no record of anyone telling the family that.
"I would doubt that," Rush said. "I would think that would be an incredible response on our part."
The diocese did, however, offer to pay for counseling for any family member who wanted it.
"The diocese always, as a matter of course, offers counseling to anyone who comes forward with an allegation of being sexually abused or abused by a priest or by any church personnel," Rush said. "We don't use a litmus test of credibility to do that. People oftentimes seem to be in pain. We don't pass judgment on the credibility. We would like to try to heal the pain in any way we can."
Two of Kevin Hunter's sisters took them up on the offer. Kathy Donegan said she went to a therapist almost weekly for about two years, at a cost of $80 an hour.
"I never saw a single bill," Donegan said.
Page said she also saw a therapist for two years. That therapist supplied The Star with documents that indicated the diocese had paid for Page's $75-an-hour sessions.
Donegan's psychologist, Kathleen Riordan, did not return phone calls. Donegan said the diocese had recommended Riordan to her and that Riordan told her she had been approved for an unlimited number of sessions. Donegan said Riordan also told her that she was instructed to keep the diocese apprised of her progress. Riordan has served as a member of the diocese's sexual abuse response team.
"I used to want to confront him (Hart)," said Kevin's brother, Mike Hunter. "I don't have any desire to confront him now." Instead, he has funneled his energy into leading the local chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. A second allegation
The other accuser, who is now 40, said he, too, called the diocese after seeing a television report about another priest who had been accused of sexual abuse of a minor.
Rush said the allegation was deemed not credible by church officials. According to the diocesan file, Rush said, only one incident was involved: groping from behind a stage curtain at school.
The alleged victim disputes that account. He said he first approached Rotert in 1992, and claimed the first incident occurred on a couch in the TV room of the rectory.
"Nobody else was there," he said. "He tickled me and rubbed against me, then he started moving his hand down. Then he unbuttoned my jeans and tried to unzip them. He was laughing the whole time. I said, 'Father, stop!' He said, 'It's OK. ' After about 10 minutes of fighting him off and nervous laughing, I took off. And I ran through the living room and went home.
"I was very confused. I didn't tell anybody. About a week or two later, during class, I was walking down the hallway at school. We met, and he grabbed me. He held on to me. He said, 'You're a troublemaker. Nobody's going to believe you.' "
Rush said no such details appear in diocesan records.
"All of those things are new," Rush said. "They have never been relayed to me, and they are not in the file."
After the man told Rotert his story, he said, the vicar general put him in touch with a psychologist at Catholic Charities. He said he saw the psychologist, who was a nun, regularly for about a year. The diocese took care of the fee, he said.
In 1993, the accuser recalled, he met with Rotert to talk about how he was doing.
"They said they talked with Father Hart and that he denied it, but they were willing to help me out," he said. "They asked me, 'Where are you at in your life?' I was going through a divorce; my car stunk. I said, 'I could use some new wheels.' They actually took me car shopping."
The man said Rotert sent him to a former car salesman who helped negotiate a deal on a black Chevy extended-cab truck. When he told Rotert he had found one, the man said, Rotert offered to pay for part of it.
The man got the truck on July 20, 1993. Documents from the dealership show that Lathrop, Koontz & Norquist, the law firm for the diocese, paid $12,100 for the truck and that the man financed the remaining $2,556. The law firm is now known as Lathrop & Gage.
The man said that when he got the pickup, he signed a document saying he would not seek further compensation from the diocese. He said he continued to seek counseling from the psychologist, but that he paid for those visits himself because the diocese stopped paying after the pickup was purchased.
"The diocese doesn't buy pickup trucks often," Rush acknowledged. "This gentleman was in dire financial straits, did not have transportation for his job, and the diocese did assist him with the purchase of a pickup truck to the amount of $12,000. Nothing like that has occurred since I've been in this office."
"We do frequently have legal counsel which advises that the cheaper route to deal with this is to make a settlement rather than go through the courts."
- The Star's Donna McGuire contributed to this report.
- To reach Judy L. Thomas, call (816) 234-4334 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
- To reach Matt Stearns, Missouri correspondent, call (816) 234-4435 or send e-mail to email@example.com. Statement from the bishop
The statement issued Wednesday by Bishop Joseph Hart, retired bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyo., and former parish priest in Kansas City:
"I have learned that recently, an allegation made against me in 1992 has surfaced. I was accused of having improperly touched a young man 23 years earlier, in 1969, when I was a priest in Kansas City. I had never previously been advised of this allegation. When the allegation surfaced in 1992, the young man had already died at a tragically young age. The allegation was made posthumously by others. I did then - and do now - categorically and completely deny any improper conduct with this young man. The allegation is baseless.
"In the current climate, only full and complete disclosure will ensure the integrity of the Church. I want to also advise you of a second allegation first made against me in the late 1980s, but repeated in 1992, of a purported incident that had also allegedly occurred many years before. A man came to the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph demanding money as redress for alleged improprieties on my part.
"This allegation was also false, but in 1992, I submitted myself to the procedures of the authorities of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, in accordance with their policies. They will attest to the fact I was most cooperative and received a thorough evaluation, was cleared and returned to work.
"At that time, the Papal Nuncio of the United States was notified and was made fully aware of the allegation and my subsequent evaluation. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops was also apprised.
"Today, in my retirement, these unfounded accusations have caused me great pain. They cause me great embarrassment, even in my innocence. You may recall that in 1993, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago was wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct. The Cardinal's accuser later recanted and the Cardinal, showing the example of Christ to the world, not only forgave his accuser, but ministered to him up until the time of the young man's own tragic death.
"Our Church is going through a great trial caused by the sordid acts of a very small number of priests. These misdeeds require a critical self-examination by the Church. Those wronged deserve justice. But not every accusation is just."
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