Former KC Priest Cleared of Sex Abuse Allegations

By Matt Stearns
Kansas City Star
July 31, 2002

Retired Roman Catholic Bishop Joseph Hart, a longtime priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, has been cleared of any wrongdoing in a child sexual abuse investigation in Cheyenne, Wyo.

After reviewing the results of the Cheyenne Police Department's investigation, a special prosecutor said in a news release Tuesday, "It is clear that the allegations are without merit and that therefore the case must be unfounded."

The case, which surfaced in April, is now closed, and police will take no further action, according to special prosecutor Kevin P. Meenan.

In a news release, Hart said, "I am obviously pleased by the findings of the Cheyenne police but in no way surprised, as I was aware of my innocence.

"I still do not know what truly led the person to make these accusations. I would be less than human if I did not acknowledge some anger - and some sorrow, too - but I do pray for him and his family, and sincerely hope they find peace of mind, heart and spirit in their lives," Hart said.

Hart's accuser couldn't be reached for comment Tuesday.

The allegations stem from 1977, a year after Hart moved to Wyoming from the Kansas City diocese to become auxiliary bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne. He was appointed bishop in 1978 and retired in 2001.

The Wyoming investigation began after two previous sexual abuse allegations against Hart from his years in Kansas City came to light. Hart served for 20 years as a priest at several Kansas City parishes, including Guardian Angels and St. John Francis Regis.

Because there is no statute of limitations on the sexual abuse of children in Wyoming, authorities there investigated.

According to Meenan's news release, the accuser - now 39 and living on the East Coast - told police that "Bishop Hart made him touch himself during confession in one incident and had made him change swimming suits in front of Hart in two other incidents."

But after that conversation, Hart's accuser "refused to provide additional statements or information, and has not cooperated with the investigation."

Meenan also said, "It was revealed in the course of the investigation that (the accuser) had retained private counsel in Kansas City and was possibly pursuing financial damages from the Catholic Church.

"In summary ... the report concludes there is some question as to the credibility of (the alleged victim), noted (the alleged victim's) lack of cooperation in the investigation, noted the lack of any corroborated evidence for the allegations and noted that for over 25 years these claims had never been reported," according to the news release.

By contrast, Meenan said, "Bishop Hart cooperated fully with police investigators and provided all information requested of him. Hart has vehemently denied the allegations."

Mike Hunter, director of the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, questioned the thoroughness of the Wyoming investigation. Hunter and other relatives allege that Hart sexually abused one of Hunter's siblings - now deceased - in the early 1970s.

"Nobody from Cheyenne ever contacted any of our family members," Hunter said. "When you're investigating, you think that you'd talk to someone else who has raised similar concerns. What kind of investigation is that?"

Hart has denied the Hunters' allegations.

Paula Glover, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Cheyenne, said that to her knowledge the diocese did not pay a settlement to Hart's accuser.

"Why would you settle an unfounded allegation?" Glover asked.

Earlier abuse allegations against Hart became public April 24, when the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese issued a statement.

The diocese said then that in 1989 and 1992 Hart was accused of sexually abusing two boys in the 1970s and late 1960s, but that church officials deemed the charges not credible.

The diocese helped one alleged victim buy a pickup truck and paid for his counseling. It also paid counseling bills for two sisters of another alleged victim, who had died by the time the allegation was reported to the diocese.

Hart denied those Kansas City allegations privately when first confronted and issued a public denial when they arose again in April.

In a news release, Bishop David Ricken, the current head of the Diocese of Cheyenne, said the diocese was "grateful to Bishop Hart for his 25 years as a bishop here in the Diocese of Cheyenne and his 40 years of priestly service."

"I look forward to the continued ministry of Bishop Hart in his capacity as the esteemed retired bishop of this diocese."


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