NEW YORK — Cheyenne, Wyoming’s police department has concluded the latest round of its investigation into Bishop Joseph Hart, who could soon become the first U.S. bishops to be criminally charged for abusing minors.
According to the Casper Star-Tribune, the investigation concluded last week and marks the second round of the investigation.
An earlier investigation completed in August 2019 recommended that charges be brought against a member of the Wyoming Catholic clergy and another person “seeking membership” in the clergy of abuse during the 1970s and 1980s.
While state law prevents the suspects from being identified, a press release at the time said the investigation “stems from a case initiated in 2002 that was reopened in 2018 when new information was produced and provided to the Cheyenne Police Department by an independent investigation conducted by the Wyoming Diocese of the Catholic Church.”
The subject of that 2002 investigation centered around Bishop Joseph Hart, who was bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 until his retirement in 2001. Following a public records request, a prosecutor confirmed that Hart was one of the men recommended for charges.
The latest investigation was commended after at least four new victims came forward in Wyoming.
More than a dozen victims from Hart’s time as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri have claimed that he serially abused them. The retired bishop has consistently denied all allegations against him, although numerous U.S. bishops have since deemed many of the cases against Hart to be credible.
While Hart may soon face criminal charges, he is also facing a canonical investigation at the Vatican, which may result from his eventual dismissal from the clerical state.
In November 2018, the current bishop of Cheyenne, Steven Biegler, announced that the Vatican had given the green light for a penal process.
His case first reached the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010 when Bishop Paul Etienne asked for them to open an investigation soon after he was named bishop of the diocese.
When Biegler was named to succeed Etienne in 2017, he was briefed on the case and in July 2018, he announced that the diocese had completed its own investigation into Hart and found the allegations against him to be credible.
The current status of Hart’s canonical investigation remains unknown, although it is believed that their findings — and any potential actions — would not be made public until the criminal cases are brought to a conclusion.
Hart, who is 88, continues to live in Wyoming. Given his advanced age and his poor health — he relies on a ventilator — many of his victims fear that neither the criminal nor canonical cases will be completed before his death.
In August 2019, one of his victims, who asked to remain anonymous, told Crux that what at this point he isn’t seeking for Hart to be sent to jail, but he wants the church to take action and to remove him from the priesthood before he dies.
“I want him to face a reckoning from the very institution that protected him all these years.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
Crux is dedicated to smart, wired and independent reporting on the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church. That kind of reporting doesn’t come cheap, and we need your support. You can help Crux by giving a small amount monthly, or with a onetime gift. Please remember, Crux is a for-profit organization, so contributions are not tax-deductible.