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Vatican still investigating claims against former bishop

CASPER — The Vatican’s “administrative penal process” into former Wyoming bishop Joseph Hart — which could see the cleric removed from the priesthood — has yet to resolve, the church said Tuesday, and investigations in Kansas City are on hold until the process in Rome finishes.

Current Wyoming Bishop Steven Biegler announced in June that Hart, who has been accused of sexual abuse by more than 10 men, would face adjudication by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The body was first formed to safeguard church doctrine and to investigate heretics nearly 500 years ago.

More recently, the CDF has been the highest court overseeing the penal process into disgraced clerics. Earlier this year, for instance, it upheld the conviction by a church court of the archbishop of Guam. The CDF also investigated former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was accused of sexual abuse. In January, the body issued a decree finding McCarrick guilty and removing him from the priesthood.

According to Crux Now, a Catholic news outlet that’s covered Hart extensively, the former bishop is likely to face a trial in front of five judges. A similar process was followed when the CDF investigated McCarrick and Anthony Apuron, the Guam archbishop. Crux Now also reported that former Wyoming bishop Paul Etienne asked the CDF to investigate Hart in 2010. It’s unclear why the case didn’t move forward then.

Etienne, who’s now an archbishop in Seattle, would go on to restrict Hart’s ability to publicly celebrate mass in 2015. Beigler would open an investigation into Hart in 2017, specifically looking at allegations brought forward by a man in 2002 that Hart had abused him in confession in the mid-1970s. That investigation, handled by Cheyenne Police and then-Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan, was closed due to a “lack of evidence.” During Biegler’s investigation into Hart, another Wyoming victim came forward, and a third would be identified by August 2018. The allegations brought by three more Wyoming victims have been substantiated in the past year.

Hart has faced allegations of sexual abuse against minors for nearly 30 years. His abuse allegedly began when he was a priest in Kansas City, Missouri, where he worked for 20 years. He moved to Wyoming in 1976 to become the auxiliary bishop before becoming full bishop in 1978. He retired in 2001.

Hart has consistently denied any wrongdoing. A message left for his attorney, Tom Jubin, was not returned earlier this week. Jubin has not returned repeated requests for comment made by the Star-Tribune over the past two months. When a reporter knocked on Hart’s door recently, the former bishop, who is 88 and on oxygen, declined to comment.

At least six men have accused Hart of abusing them in Wyoming, according to the Diocese of Cheyenne. All six of those allegations have been deemed substantiated by a diocese review board. The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has settled with at least 10 more men who say Hart abused them when they were minors.

Rebecca Randles, an attorney in Kansas City who has represented several of Hart’s victims, told the Star-Tribune earlier this month that Hart was the “ringleader” of a trio of clergymen who abused dozens of boys in Kansas City. The other two clerics — Thomas O’Brien and Thomas Reardon — and Hart would allegedly bring boys to a lakehouse in northern Missouri, where the minors were plied with alcohol and abused.

Reardon, who resigned from the priesthood in 1989, has faced allegations by at least 24 people. O’Brien, who retired from the priesthood in 2002, had been accused by several more and was named in several lawsuits, alongside Hart and Reardon.

Randles said there were hundreds of reports of abuse occurring at the lake house and that multiple boys would be brought there every weekend. She said it’s difficult to calculate how many minors Hart allegedly abused, but she said he either actively engaged in abuse or was present for the abuse of at least 30 minors.

Hart has previously denied those allegations.

In September, a spokesman for the Kansas City diocese said Missouri church officials had identified four new victims of Hart. Two of those victims were abused in Wyoming, the spokesman, Jack Smith, said. One was allegedly abused in Cheyenne, and the other may have been abused in Casper. Smith said the victims were Missouri residents who traveled with Hart to Wyoming when he was bishop.

Smith said on Monday that one of those four new victims had chosen not to go forward with an investigation.

Randles said Hart was known for taking boys with him on trips around the West and abusing them. He allegedly abused Kevin Hunter, a Kansas City boy whose mother was close friends with Hart, as the two traveled together. Hunter’s family has spoken out about the abuse in recent years, though Kevin Hunter died in the late 1980s after his life spiraled into substance abuse.

Last summer, Hart, via his attorney, denied allegations that he abused boys on trips.

The Cheyenne diocese has already deemed the two Missouri residents’ allegations against Hart as substantiated, after its review board investigated them earlier this year. Smith, the Kansas City diocese spokesman, told the Star-Tribune on Monday that the review board at his diocese had yet to come to a similar determination.

He said the board in Kansas City was waiting on the Vatican to make a determination.

“The review board has looked at them, but we can’t really come to any final determination because the Vatican is also now looking at them, and they have their own investigation going,” Smith said. “So we will wait until after the trial.”

Smith said the new reports of abuse in Wyoming were forwarded to both the Cheyenne diocese and to detectives in Cheyenne. A spokesman for the Cheyenne Police Department said last week that law enforcement there isn’t currently investigating anything related to priest abuse.

The department announced in August that it was recommending charges against two unnamed men for sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. One man was a member of the Catholic clergy at the time of the abuse, while the other was an “altar server.”

While the department and diocese have declined to name either man, citing statue statute, one of the men is almost certainly Hart, based on information the department has released.

The Star-Tribune previously reported that Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen would serve as a special prosecutor and would handle the investigation and any prosecution into Hart and the other man. Itzen has declined to comment.

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