NEW YORK — A Vatican investigation has exonerated retired Bishop Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on seven accusations of sexual abuse towards minors, while five other accusations “could not be proven with moral certitude,” the diocese announced in a statement Monday.
The decree came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) – the Vatican office responsible for processing clergy sex abuse complaints.
However, the CDF issued a canonical rebuke to Hart for “his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips, which could have been potential occasions endangering the ‘obligation to observe continence’ and that would ‘give rise to scandal among the faithful,’” according to the diocese statement.
“He was also rebuked ‘for his disregard of the urgent requests that he refrain from public engagements that would cause scandal among the faithful due to the numerous accusations against him and the civil and canonical investigations and processes being conducted in his regard,’” the statement continued.
The aforementioned accusations involved 11 males and one female. The decree also states that two additional accusations could not be considered violations of the canon law because the alleged victims were not under the age of 16. At the time, the Code of Canon Law stated such crimes were restricted to minors under that age, the statement said.
The diocese statement further noted that the Vatican’s decree left out “one credible allegation” made by a male under the age of 16 that the diocese reported to the Vatican.
The diocese also conducted its own investigation into six allegations against Hart in January 2018, which the investigator found credible. The Judicial Vicar and Diocesan Review Board then separately reviewed the allegations and confirmed they were credible.
In July of that year, Bishop Steven Biegler announced that he stood behind the determination. On Monday, Biegler reiterated his support for the survivors.
“I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you,” Biegler said in the statement. “I understand that this announcement will not bring closure to the survivors, their family members, Bishop Hart and all those affected.”
“I will continue to work and pray for their healing and for all involved in these painful and distressing matters,” Biegler continued. “In the Diocese of Cheyenne, we remain steadfast in our commitment to protect the most vulnerable and to accompany those who have been harmed on a journey of healing.”
The allegations against Hart were also investigated by police. In June of last year, Natrona County prosecutors told an alleged victim Hart would not be prosecuted. They reconsidered after a meeting with Cheyenne police, but confirmed the decision in July bringing the two-year investigation to a close.
That was the second time the police investigated the prelate for abuse related allegations. The first investigation took place in 2002. A Natrona County prosecutor closed the investigation after two months.
Hart, 89, was the bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 until his retirement in 2001. Prior to that, he was a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for more than two decades following his ordination in 1956. There too, his legacy was followed with allegations of abuse.
Hart has previously denied all allegations of misconduct.
According to the statement, the canonical rebuke also served as a reminder to Hart that the restrictions he was given by the Congregation for Bishops on October 2, 2018 are still in force regarding “the Holy Father’s prohibition that he refrain from ‘any contact with minors, youth, seminarians and vulnerable adults’ and from ‘presiding or participating anywhere in any public celebration of the Liturgy.’”
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