Wyoming bishop a perfect test case for Pope’s vows of accountability

Wyoming bishop a perfect test case for Pope’s vows of accountability

Wyoming bishop a perfect test case for Pope’s vows of accountability

Pope Francis salutes pilgrims and faithful as he leaves St. Peter's Square at the Vatican after his weekly general audience, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (Credit: AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino.)

It’s difficult to imagine a better test case for whether "Vox estis" has any teeth, at least in the U.S., than the case of Bishop Joseph Hart.

News Analysis

ROME – Ask the typical American Catholic in the pews, and most could probably tell you a fair bit about Theodore McCarrick, the ex-cardinal and now ex-priest whose fall from grace amid reports of decades-long sexual misconduct and abuse triggered a firestorm a year ago which, in many ways, is still raging.

By way of contrast, few rank-and-file churchgoers outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming, or Kansas City, Missouri, could probably pick Bishop Joseph Hart out of a lineup – and that relative obscurity is precisely what makes Hart such an ideal test case for Pope Francis’s avowed commitment to accountability, including for bishops. (Of course, it’s actually a test of the entire system, not just the pope, but he’s the one making the promises.)

As any expert in the moral life will tell you, the real test of integrity isn’t what you do when people are watching, but the choices you make when they’re not.

Although there had been rumors about McCarrick for decades, and confidential restrictions were imposed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2008 and largely ignored, the McCarrick scandal nevertheless was stunning in part because of the speed with which his final downfall occurred. He was suspended from ministry the moment the Archdiocese of New York announced that its review board had found an allegation credible, he resigned from the College of Cardinals within a month, and he was expelled from the priesthood just eight months after that.

It doesn’t require any special sociological genius to wonder if part of the reason the system went into overdrive on McCarrick was because intense public pressure demanded it. The entire world was watching, and nobody probably wanted to be perceived as the chaplain of the Old Boy’s Club in the middle of a PR Chernobyl.

The Hart case, however, has unfolded without much fanfare over more than a decade, despite the fact that the allegations involved appear far more serious. As one local priest put it, the charges against Hart and his clergy friends who were also reportedly involved in acts of abuse “make Ted McCarrick look like a saint.”

To be clear, those charges have yet to be tested in a court of law, either civil or ecclesiastical, and until that happens it’s impossible to assess the full truth. However, the pattern of accusations, settlements and further accusations would certainly suggest that such a process is warranted, and not in some vague eschatological future.

Crux’s Chris White painstakingly unpacked the entire Hart story in a three-part series that ran this week.

RELATED: Case of Bishop Hart shows role clericalism plays in abuse cover-up

Now 87, Hart faces at least a dozen accusations of the sexual abuse of minors, and police in Cheyenne have recommended that criminal charges be filed. If that happens, he would become the first U.S. bishop to face prosecution for the abuse of minors. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, where Hart served earlier in his career, also has paid out nearly $20 million to more than 50 plaintiffs in cases that include Hart and a handful of other priests accused of repeated abuse.

The earliest charges against Hart date all the way back to 1989 and were reported at the time to both the U.S. bishops’ conference and the Vatican, but they weren’t revealed to the public until the initial eruption of the abuse scandal in the American Church in 2002. In June 2019, the Diocese of Cheyenne announced that Francis had imposed restrictions on Hart and authorized a penal process, but it’s not clear where that process stands.

The juxtaposition of rapid response in the McCarrick case and the languid pace with which things have developed with Hart is striking, all the more so given that two successive bishops in Cheyenne, Paul Etienne and new Steven Biegler, have pressed Rome to take action.

The Hart case also raises issues of accountability not just for the crime but for possible cover-up, since Bishop David Ricken, now of Green Bay who was Hart’s successor in Cheyenne from 2001 to 2008, has been accused of protecting Hart when a criminal investigation was launched in 2002.

Responding to the pressures created by the McCarrick scandal, Francis issued the document Vox estis lux mundi in early May outlining a new process for episcopal accountability, both for the crime and the cover-up, envisioning a key role for metropolitan archbishops and requiring all dioceses in the world to set up reporting mechanisms.

RELATED: Pope issues global standards for reporting, investigating clergy abuse

In his preamble, the pontiff said the idea was to take “concrete and effective actions” to ensure that “these phenomena, in all their forms, never happen again.” It’s difficult to imagine a better test case for whether Vox estis has any teeth, at least in the U.S., than Hart’s.

As the process plays out, the reactions of other U.S. bishops will be important.

Biegler, who took over in Cheyenne in 2017, has faced blowback from some fellow prelates who would have preferred that he handle the Hart case more quietly. Something similar could be said of Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who’s been in regular communication with alleged Hart victims and who’s announced publicly that the diocese deems the charges to be “credible.”

It’s interesting to note that Biegler is 60 and Johnston 59, and that both men became bishops post-2002. Perhaps they represent a new cohort among the American bishops, a generation for whom the old rules of the clerical club – which, in this instance, probably would include allowing an 87-year-old cleric to die in peace, without the pressures of a canonical trial – no longer apply.

(Speaking of Kansas City, there’s also the case of Bishop Robert Finn, who was convicted in 2012 of failure to report an accusation of abuse. Despite resigning, he still takes part in U.S. bishops’ meetings.)

Of course, neither Biegler nor Johnston ultimately will decide how the Hart saga ends. That script will be written elsewhere, between the U.S. and Rome – and perhaps this time, it won’t be a hasty denouement that speaks less to the system than the pressure it happens to be under at a given moment.

Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr


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