Former Cheyenne Bishop Joseph Hart is the first U.S. senior pastor to face a criminal trial on child abuse charges. The 87-year-old maintains his innocence to this day. His successor in office exerts prere to clarify the matter.
Shortly after Steven Biegler took office as bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne in 2017, he quickly learned how hard it is to shake firmly held perceptions. More than a few Catholics in his diocese, which encompasses the entire U.S. state of Wyoming, reacted with irritation to his announcement that he would reopen the internal church investigation of his larger-than-life predecessor, Joseph Hart, for child molestation.
Allegations of a former altar boy
The accusations come from a former altar boy whom the now-retired bishop took under his wing in the late 1970s after his father abandoned the family. Hart not only harnessed the then-twelve-year-old to all sorts of services at the church, but also allegedly sexually assaulted him, according to the boy's testimony. In 2001, the alleged victim filed a complaint on the advice of his sister and his therapist.
Wyoming police investigated and dropped the case the following year for lack of evidence. "It is clear that the allegations are without substance and therefore the case must be found to be without merit," said at the time the chief prosecutor for the judicial district, Kevin Meenan.
Biegler's investigation, launched in 2018, came to a different conclusion. According to the report, both the church and police had reached a glaring error in judgment at the time. In fact, there were sufficient reasons to believe the person concerned. Especially since Hart's home diocese in Missouri had already reached out-of-court settlements in ten cases with people who claimed they were abused by him during his time as a priest.
If it comes to the indictment?
Last year, four more Missouri victims came forward with allegations. The new investigation launched by Bishop Biegler in turn encouraged three alleged victims to make allegations for the first time. In mid-August, state investigators in Wyoming, cooperating with the diocese, recommended charges against Hart. If it comes to that, he would be the first U.S. bishop to stand trial on abuse charges.
In parallel, Pope Francis personally gave the green light in June for an ecclesiastical criminal case against the 87-year-old. Chances are Hart could become the second U.S. bishop, after former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, not only to lose his title but to be removed from the priesthood.
Hart steadfastly denies the serious allegations, the disturbing details of which the Catholic online portal "Crux" has just unfolded in a three-part series. It describes the double life of a popular bishop who, upon his arrival in Cheyenne in 1976, spread the fresh wind of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) throughout his new diocese.
The new bishop captured the hearts of some 50.000 Catholics of the Rocky Mountain western state, earned the respect of politicians and proved himself an able leader of his diocese. Accordingly, another, darker side of Hart remained hidden for decades.
Alleged victims were not listened to
His alleged victims were not listened to, fell into alcoholism and depression or – as in at least one case – took their own lives.
Biegler shocked many Catholics in his diocese when he promised to get to the bottom of the truth. He flew to New York, met the altar boy who made allegations in 2001, and promised him he would clear up the case.
"People treat victims with suspicion," the bishop told "Crux," explaining why it was so hard for those affected to make their voices heard against bigwigs who had been established for more than four decades. "In many cases, church leaders have seen victims as adversaries rather than brothers and sisters, failing to care for them adequately." That has changed at least in Wyoming under the leadership of the new bishop.
Things are already getting uncomfortable for Hart. The Association of Priest Abuse Victims SNAP on Thursday (local time) called on the diocese to strip the retired bishop of all privileges and send him to a convent in rural Kansas. "Just because an abuser has gotten older doesn't magically make him cured," reads a statement from SNAP. "The Catholic hierarchy must protect others from them."