Bishop Joseph Hart, a priest based in the Diocese of Cheyenne, has been accused by a third male victim in Wyoming of sexual assault. This is the ninth man to allege misconduct on the part of the bishop. The other six victims were assaulted while Hart was a member of the Diocese of Kansas City, where Hart resided before moving to the Cowboy State in 1971. Hart was sued for his conduct in Kansas City, but the charges brought against him were settled outside of court. Those close to the recent accusations believe that there are more victims that have yet to tell their stories.
Hart was credibly accused of assaulting two men in 2002 over his twenty-year tenure as a priest in Wyoming. He served in churches both in Casper and Cheyenne. The investigations were dropped, however, when investigators at the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office found no evidence of misconduct, due to the fact that one of the victims could not be reached for a second interview by investigators. Over a decade later, private investigators hired by the Diocese of Cheyenne, as well as its internal review board, disagreed with the DA’s office and reopened the case into the first two Wyoming victims last December.
The same review board found the accusations of the third victim “credible and substantiated.” They have since reported the misconduct to the Vatican. Wyoming does not have a statute of limitations on such criminal proceedings.
Steven Biegler is now the bishop for the Diocose of Cheyenne and lead the charge to reopen the investigation into Hart. In a statement, Biegler said that Hart has “”consistently denied all allegations that he sexually abused minors.” Biegler issued two statements in July: one to all of the Catholic churches in Wyoming apologizing for Hart’s behavior on behalf of the church, and other to urge other victims to come forward. Biegler officially stated “…if anyone has been abused, no matter how long ago, I encourage you to come forward. I want to listen to you and accompany you on a journey of healing.” Pleadings for unidentified victims to come forward have also been posted by Biegler on Facebook.
Hart is still a member of the church clergy, but he is unable to publicly celebrate mass.
Accusations follow a larger international trend, wherein male victims, who were in many cases members of the church themselves as altar boys, are finding the courage to speak out against their accusers. Last week, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing how over 1,000 children were assaulted by 300 “predatory priests.” The report also detailed systemic cover-ups on part of the church. (Read more about the report [HERE].)