Wyoming Residents Support Bishop but Kansas City Family Claims Hart Sexually Molested Boy during 1971 Trip
By Howard Pankratz, , Coleman Cornelius, and Virginia Culver, Denver Post Staff Writers
May 16, 2002
CHEYENNE - Residents expressed doubt Wednesday that retired Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Hart could ever have been involved in sexual misconduct.
Cheyenne police have launched an investigation into an allegation that in the late 1970s, Hart, now 70, victimized a 13-year-old Wyoming boy who is now 38 and living on the East Coast.
'I don't believe it myself,' said Louis Romero, 59, who attends St. Mary's Cathedral in downtown Cheyenne, where Hart celebrated Mass at the burials of his grandmother and three uncles. 'He didn't seem like that type of person. I still can't believe it.'
Added the Rev. Ray Rodriquez, pastor at Holy Rosary Church in Lander: 'No one believes the charges. Bishop Hart is a wonderful man and well respected.'
But in Kansas City, where Hart has been accused of two other cases of sexual abuse involving boys, Mike Hunter had a different view.
Hunter said Hart molested his brother, Kevin. He blamed Hart for Kevin Hunter's spiral into drugs and alcohol, and he claimed that behavior was triggered when Hart sexually molested Kevin during a 1971 trip.
Kevin Hunter died in 1989 of AIDS.
Hart denies molesting anyone. No charges are being contemplated in Kansas City because the statute of limitations has passed.
Hunter said Wednesday that, for many years, Hart was a priest in Kansas City where he was a close friend of the Hunter family and a frequent dinner guest in their home.
Hunter said he found out about the alleged abuse in 1984 when Hart - by then the bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne, which includes all of Wyoming - visited Kansas City. Hunter arranged for Hart to meet his brother in hopes it would turn Kevin around.
But the meeting unleashed a secret, Mike Hunter said.
'(Kevin) was crying real hard,' Hunter said. 'He said, 'Bishop Hart is the reason I am the way I am. He abused me when I went on a trip with him. He sexually abused me."
Hunter said the family didn't approach the diocese with the allegations until 1992 and only after they heard Hart was continuing to take children on trips.
Hunter said Hart was in 'every outward way just a wonderful priest,' a perception shared by many in Wyoming.
'Everyone feels bad that Bishop Hart's well-earned retirement has been so painful,' the Rev. Andrew Duncan, pastor of St. Margaret Church in Riverton, said Wednesday. In Douglas, the Rev. Cliff Jacobson, pastor of St. James Church, said that 'people across the board feel he's innocent.'
Cheyenne officials said Wednesday that the allegations will be thoroughly investigated.
But District Attorney Jon Forwood and police Capt. Pat Byrne said the investigation, originally prompted by a call from the alleged victim on the East Coast to Forwood two weeks ago, is still in its early stages.
'We are a long way from presenting anything to the district attorney,' Byrne said. 'We are in the basic, fact-gathering phase of the investigation, and the facts will lead us to what we do next.'
There is no statute of limitations in Wyoming that would prohibit the filing of criminal charges.
Forwood said the investigation centers on allegations that 'there were acts the minor was asked to perform' by the bishop.
Forwood, Byrne and detective commander Lt. Jeff Schulz, who is leading the investigation, declined to provide further details.
But Byrne said the investigation is unusual because of the time that has elapsed and because the alleged victim now lives out of state.
Hart on Tuesday denounced the investigation as a 'witch hunt,' denying that he has ever engaged in improper sexual behavior with minors during his more than 46 years with the church.
Allegations that Hart had been involved in years of sexual misconduct first arose last month in Kansas City when reports surfaced that two boys - including Kevin Hunter - had been molested there in the early 1970s.
Hart denied those claims.
HUBERT JOSEPH HART
Born on Sept. 26, 1931, the son of Hubert and Kathryn Rose Muser Hart in Kansas City, Mo.
Attended public schools and college in Kansas City, and St. John's and St. Meinrad seminary schools in Indiana.
Assistant pastor at Kansas City Diocese, Guardian Angels Church, 1956-62; Visitation Church, 1962-66. Vice chancellor of the diocese, 1964-69.
Pastor, St. John Francis Regis Church in Kansas City, 1969-76.
Ordained, Aug. 31, 1976.
Was appointed vicar general of the diocese and pastor of St. Patrick's Church in Casper, 1976.
Was named bishop of the Cheyenne Diocese, April 25, 1978.
Retired on Sept. 26, 2001. Succeeded by Coadjutor Bishop David Ricken.
Source: Diocese of Cheyenne
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