A former Kansas City priest and bishop of Wyoming who faced multiple allegations of sexual assault has died


Joseph Hart, a former Kansas City priest and retired Wyoming bishop, died Wednesday, his tenure clouded by a series of sexual assault allegations that two US bishops deemed credible but denied by the Vatican. He was 91 years old.

His death was confirmed late Wednesday afternoon by the Archdiocese of Cheyenne. Hart has been dealing with health issues for years and recently entered a nursing home.

Hart has been the subject of allegations of abuse spanning more than three decades and has been the target of two criminal investigations in Wyoming that both ended with no charges being filed. He was also one of the many priests who appeared in it The Procession, a critically acclaimed 2021 Netflix documentary About sexual abuse of clergy.

The news of Hart’s death sparked a strong reaction from sexual assault survivors and their families.

“Let his victims know they are believed,” said Ed Gavaghan of New York City, who grew up in Cheyenne and whose allegations against Hart led to criminal investigations. “May the families of the victims who died without knowing this truth be comforted by the community of survivors who worked against all odds to expose their abusers and the Catholic Church’s long and shameful complicity in concealing their sins.”

Darrell Hunter, who along with his two brothers were among the minors Hart was accused of abusing in Kansas City decades ago, said the death was difficult to process.

“When I learned of his death as a victim of Joseph Hart’s abuse as a boy, I could only express my deep disappointment at his failure and the failure of his church to bring about a just solution to the harm he had caused to so many families,” he said.

Hart has maintained his innocence over the years. After the Vatican acquitted him in 2021, his lawyer, Thomas Jobin, said in a statement that the charges were unfounded and accused Stephen Pegler, the Cheyenne bishop who pushed for the investigation, of “bravado”.

“Bishop Hart has had to live under the cloud of these allegations for many years, especially since he appointed Bishop Pegler as Bishop of Cheyenne and began this divisive, irresponsible and incomprehensible campaign against his predecessor,” Jobin said.

“Nevertheless, Bishop Hart asks me to convey that he continues to pray for all involved in this cause that they may find peace and healing. He is now asking, and I am also asking, that he now have peace in the twilight of this life as he prepares to meet his Lord in the life to come. .

The Diocese of Cheyenne remained responsible for Hart’s care until his death.

Born September 26, 1931, Hart was a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976. He became auxiliary bishop of Cheyenne in 1976 and was bishop from 1978 until his retirement in 2001.

Allegations against Hart first arose in 1989 and 1992, when two Missouri men alleged that Hart sexually abused them when they were boys and he was a priest in Kansas City. Church officials at the time found these claims uncredible, but the Kansas City St. Joseph Parish helped one of the men buy a pickup truck and paid for his consulting. The diocese also paid for the counseling costs of the other man’s two sisters. In 2018, Bishop James F. Johnston that these claims are substantiated.

In 2002, Gavaghan accused Hart of sexually assaulting him as a boy when his family lived in Cheyenne. The authorities in Cheyenne concluded that there was no evidence to support the allegations. But in July 2018, Pegler—then the new bishop of Cheyenne—made the announcement that the Archdiocese has reopened its investigation into Hart.

Bigler said the previous investigation was flawed and a second man came forward with an allegation of sexual assault against Hart. Pegler said the two men’s claims were deemed “credible and substantiated”.

The Wyoming authorities, with the encouragement of the Archdiocese of Cheyenne, Opening a new criminal investigation. Had Hart been charged, he would have become the highest ranking Catholic clergyman in the country to face criminal prosecution for sexual assault of a minor.

Although the alleged abuses occurred decades ago, Wyoming – unlike most states – has no statute of limitations for criminal prosecutionsso charges can be filed years later.

In August 2019, Cheyenne Police Department She recommended that Hart be charged. By September 2019, it was done The Archdiocese of Cheyenne said it has received a total of six credible allegations against Hart.

According to the Kansas City St. In Joseph’s Parish, Hart has been named by 10 individuals in lawsuits related to child sexual abuse allegations in that parish dating back to the 1970s. And those claims were part of two Settlements of $10 million each entered into by the diocese in 2008 and 2014 In cases involving dozens of victims and many priests.

In September 2019, the Kansas City-St. Joseph’s Diocese said it received four additional charges against Hart in the past year.

In 2020, a special prosecutor is appointed for the Cheyenne criminal case He refused to press charges against Hart, citing insufficient evidence. This decision does not mean that the alleged victims are not credible, Pegler said.

“I pay tribute to the victims who have bravely spoken out about the abuses they endured,” Pegler said in a strongly worded statement. “I also support the decision made by the Archdiocese of Cheyenne on the credibility of the allegations of sexual abuse against former Bishop Hart.”

In January 2021, despite Pegler and Johnston’s findings that the allegations against Hart were credible, The Vatican acquitted him Of seven accusations that he sexually abused minors, five more he said could not be proven with “moral certainty”.

But the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also issued a canonical reprimand to Hart, said the Archdiocese of Cheyenne, “for his flagrant lack of wisdom as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips, which may have been possible occasions that threatened the ‘observance of chastity’ and that of would ‘lead to a scandal among the believers.'”

Hart was also reprimanded for “ignoring urgent requests to refrain from public engagements that would cause scandal among the faithful because of the many accusations against him and the civil and legal investigations and processes under way,” the Cheyenne Diocese said. He said.

The diocese said the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reminded Hart that the restrictions imposed on him by Pope Francis in 2018 were still in place. These restrictions prevented Hart from “any contact with minors, youth, seminarians, and vulnerable adults” and from “presiding over or participating anywhere in any public celebration of the liturgy.”

Pegler, disappointed by the Vatican’s acquittal of Hart, apparently had a message for the accusers who came forward.

“Today, I want survivors to know that I support and believe you,” Pegler said in the diocese’s statement. “I understand that this announcement will not end it for the survivors, their family members, Bishop Hart and all those affected.

“I will continue to work and pray for their recovery and for everyone involved in these painful and painful matters. In the Diocese of Cheyenne, we remain steadfast in our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable and accompanying those who have been hurt on their journey of recovery.

The Cheyenne Diocese said 11 men and one woman were charged with Hart. It said “moral certainty” was considered equivalent to “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the standard of proof required for a criminal conviction.

“These findings do not equate to innocence. “Instead, the heavy burden of proof has not been met,” the archdiocese said.

Johnston released a statement regarding the Kansas City St. Joseph’s Diocese website At the time, he said, the case was particularly significant “because many of the accusations against Bishop Hart arose from our diocese, dating back to the time he served here as a priest before becoming Bishop of Cheyenne in 1976.”

“This has been a long and often difficult process, especially for the survivors and their families who have bravely shared their stories,” Johnston said. “I am grateful for the courage and perseverance of those who brought this matter to the point of resolution; Survivors, their families, and Bishop Pegler.

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