The Vatican has exonerated Bishop Joseph H. Hart, emeritus of Cheyenne, Wyoming, on seven counts of child sexual abuse. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which handled the canonical process, also said five other accusations “could not be proven with moral certitude.”
The accusations against the 89-year-old Bishop Hart involved 11 victims who were boys at the time of the alleged crimes, and one girl. “These findings do not equate to innocence,” A statement from the diocese of Cheyenne said on Monday, “rather, a high burden of proof has not been met.”
CDF made a technical ruling on two additional allegations two additional accusations, which, the tribunal said, “could not be considered delicts,” i.e. crimes at canon law, since the law at the time the incidents allegedly took place did not consider sexual misconduct with minors aged 16 or older to be a crime.
The alleged victims in those two cases were were 16 and 17 years old at the time of the alleged misconduct.
The statement from the Cheyenne diocese also says The CDF issued a canonical rebuke to Bishop 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’.”
CDF also rebuked Hart “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.”
CDF also reminded Bishop Hart of the “restrictions placed upon him in the communication from the Congregation for Bishops dated 2 October 2018,” which 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’.”
The Cheyenne statement also said there is another allegation against Bishop Hart, which the CDF decree did not treat. “As a matter of record,” the Cheyenne statement read, “it should be noted that the decree made no mention of assessing one credible allegation of a male under 16 years of age, which the Diocese of Cheyenne reported to the CDF.”
“This individual’s name was not listed in the allegations adjudicated in the penal process,” the Diocese of Cheyenne further specified.
In 2018, the Diocese of Cheyenne hired an independent investigator to look into the allegations. The investigator determined they were credible. The Cheyenne independent review board likewise determined “that proper procedures were followed; they agreed that we needed to report credible allegations to law enforcement; and they were convinced that we had sufficient evidence to conclude with moral certainty that the six accusations against Bishop Hart are credible.”
These findings were presented to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), which has competence for coming to a final decision in such cases,” the statement from Cheyenne said. The Cheyenne review board had members with experience and expertise in a range of fields: law enforcement, psychology, pediatrics, pediatric abuse trauma psychotherapy, and law — including “a judge, who was a criminal prosecutor for 13 years involving crimes against children, primarily child sexual abuse.”
Bishop Hart was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in 1956, and served there for two decades before becoming an auxiliary and then Bishop of Cheyenne in 1978. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph received allegations of sexual misconduct against Bishop Hart starting in the late 1980s, while Green Bay received allegations in 2002.
Law enforcement investigated the allegations against Hart on different occasions, with Cheyenne police recommending charges be brought in 2019, but prosecutors declined.
The current Bishop of Cheyenne, Stephen Biegler, expressed support for the alleged victims, saying: “I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you.” Bishop Biegler went on to say he understands “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,” Bishop Biegler said. “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.”
Another bishop involved in the decades-long saga of Bishop Hart and his alleged transgressions is David Ricken of Green Bay, who succeeded Bishop Hart in the see of Cheyenne and received allegations in 2002.
In 2018, a local Fox News affiliate asked Bishop Ricken whether he might have done more in 2002. “Well,” Fox quotes Ricken in reply, “I suppose reading back you could say that, but I did what I knew to do at the time with what I knew and that’s what I did.”
“It was with deep sadness that I recently learned that someone has brought allegations of sexual misconduct against my predecessor, Bishop Joseph Hart, for actions that supposedly happened 30 years ago in Kansas City,” Bishop Ricken wrote in a 2002 letter to the faithful of Cheyenne.
“Bishop Hart categorically denies that he acted in any way contrary to his promise of celibacy and moral and priestly conduct,” Bishop Ricken’s letter went on to say. “This matter has been previously investigated and addressed by officials at the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Bishop Hart was exonerated.”
“I have discussed this matter with Bishop Hart, reviewed the information available to me, and have confidence that Bishop Hart is telling the truth,” Bishop Ricken also wrote.
Late last year, the Catholic Herald reported that Bishop Ricken had welcomed a troubled priest to his Diocese of Green Bay, who went on to engage in inappropriate relationships with adult women, at least one of which Green Bay investigated as abusive, finding the allegation credible.
Pope Francis granted a petition from the priest in question, then-Fr. Peter Mitchell, for voluntary laicization, before CDF tried him for his alleged crimes. That dispensation halted the canonical process against the priest.
*We have amended this story to highlight further details from the Cheyenne statement regarding the work of the independent investigator and the findings of the Cheyenne review board.
Image: Facade of the Palace of the Holy Office — Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio — in Rome. Credit: By Jim McIntosh – used by creative commons license: CC BY 2.0.
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