NEW YORK — Following a decision by Wyoming prosecutors not to charge retired Bishop Joseph Hart for sexual abuse against minors, his alleged victims are looking to the Church’s canonical process as a last chance for the 88-year-old prelate to be brought to justice.
As first reported by the Kansas City Star on Tuesday, and confirmed by Crux on Wednesday, a Wyoming witness coordinator informed one of Hart’s accusers that the prosecutor would not advance the case, citing insufficient evidence. This comes nearly two years after the Diocese of Cheyenne deemed the allegations from the same individual to be credible in 2018.
In a statement on Thursday, Bishop Steven Biegler, the current bishop of Cheyenne, said he stands by the diocese’s determination and noted that Hart’s case is still under review in Rome.
“This decision not to pursue a criminal case does not mean that the victims are not credible,” he said. “Once again, I commend the victims who have spoken courageously about their abuse. I also stand behind the determination made by the Diocese of Cheyenne that allegations of sexual abuse against former Bishop Hart are credible.”
Hart, who served as bishop of Cheyenne from 1978-2001, has twice been investigated by the police over abuse related allegations. The first investigation took place in 2002 but following a two month investigation, a Natrona County prosecutor closed the investigation. A second investigation began in 2018, and in August 2019 the Cheyenne Police Department recommended to prosecutors that charges be made against the bishop.
“Wyoming is unique in that it does not have a statute of limitations, and therefore these crimes, which were committed in the 1970s and 1980s, can still be investigated and prosecuted,” a press release from the police department noted at the time.
Following those recommendations, Laramie County District Attorney Leigh Ann Manlove recused herself from the case and forwarded it to Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen to serve as a special prosecutor on the case.
When Crux reached the alleged victim on Wednesday, he said he received a voicemail on Friday from the witness coordinator for Itzen. On Monday, the two connected and he was told that the prosecutor would not bring the case forward.
(It is the policy of Crux not to identify the victims of sexual abuse who do not want to be named.)
The victim told Crux that he found the news “mind-boggling,” citing a conversation with detectives two years ago who assured him that criminal charges would be brought against Hart and even being told that they have “more files on Hart than they possess for double homicide cases.”
Despite repeated requests, Itzen has declined to speak to the alleged victim to further explain his reasoning not to bring charges.
“The idea that you could drop the case without speaking to the person who was going to be in the witness stand is outrageous,” he said on Thursday.
He also said since he came forward, 6 other victims have come forward in Cheyenne with allegations against the retired bishop.
Prior to being named a bishop, Hart had served in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for the first two decades of his priesthood following ordination in 1956. Although his ecclesial career spanned over five decades, serving in two states where he was widely popular, he has been trailed by allegations of serial abuse — which he has consistently denied — dodging both civil and canonical adjudication for more than two decades.
Tom Jubin, a Cheyenne-based attorney for Hart, declined Crux’s request for comment on Thursday.
A 2019 Crux investigation chronicled accounts of alleged victims in both Missouri and Wyoming who charge that Hart regularly groomed and then abused young men dating back to his earliest days as a priest. As of 2019, the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had settled 10 cases of abuse against Hart.
Upon hearing the news from Cheyenne, Darrel Hunter, who believes he was one of Hart’s earliest victims, told Crux that he believed the decision not to prosecute stems from “a lack of political courage.”
Hunter, who resides in Kansas City, Missouri, is the son of Hart’s long-time secretary, Stella Hunter. Darrel has previously told Crux that he was the victim of misconduct by Hart at age 12, along with his two brothers, Kevin and Mike.
The Hunter family first approached church officials in 1992 with allegations against Hart and nearly 30 years later, with numerous new complaints against the bishop, he’s dismayed that the prelate has evaded prosecution from civil authorities and a removal from the priesthood by ecclesial authorities.
Hunter noted that it wasn’t until 2018 with the arrival of the new bishop, James Johnston, who began regularly meeting with the family, that the allegations from the Hunter family were finally deemed as credible.
During his lengthy tenure in Wyoming, Hart developed a number of ties with state and local officials where even today he is remembered fondly by some area Catholics — a fact that his victims believe has complicated the judicial process with too many conflicts of interest.
“The idea that the police recommended charges and they’re still not going to charge him with anything — how is this criminal justice?,” asked one of his accusers in an interview with Crux on Thursday.
Both he, along with Hunter, said that putting Hart in jail was never their desired goal, noting that given his advanced age, it was unlikely that he would live through the trial and appeals process. Instead, they said they wanted charges brought and a public hearing of their case — one in which they noted that Hart, too, would be given due process.
Upon being named to Cheyenne in 2017, Biegler was briefed by his predecessor, Archbishop Paul Etienne, now in Seattle, on the history of Hart and informed him that he had written to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2010 to alert them of the matter, but the case seemed stalled. Biegler went on to re-open the investigation at a diocesan level and in 2019, Pope Francis green lighted a penal process against Hart by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. If found guilty, Hart could face removal from the priesthood.
“The Diocese of Cheyenne is adamant in a sincere quest for justice for everyone. A just resolution is essential for the victims and their family members, but also for the clergy and laity in the Diocese of Cheyenne and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph’s,” wrote Biegler in his statement Thursday.
He said that he hopes the district attorney’s office will “offer an adequate account of the reasons for its decision not to pursue criminal charges.”
“This would assist the public in understanding why such a decision was reached,” he said, while also noting that he has not received any updated information from the Vatican on the case.
For Hart’s accusers, who say that for years, the Church was a roadblock to justice, they now believe this is an opportunity to get things right — even as they say that civil authorities are failing to hold Hart accountable.
“I don’t want him to be in a prison cell, but he represents something that’s wrong,” Hunter told Crux. “Now, we’ll have to wait and see what the Vatican says.”
“Everyone just seems to be waiting around for him to die so that they don’t have to deal with this,” Hart’s victim told Crux on Thursday. “But if the Vatican acts and actually removes him from the priesthood, that would be earthly and heavenly justice.”
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212