Retired Wyoming bishop dies; exonerated at Vatican trial over abuse claims

Retired Bishop Joseph H. Hart of Cheyenne, pictured in an undated photo, who headed the statewide diocese from 1978 to 2001 and had faced accusations of sexual abuse against minors decades ago, died Aug. 23, 2023, at Davis Hospice Center in Cheyenne, according to an Aug. 25 obituary in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle daily newspaper. He was 91. (OSV News photo/CNS file)

by OSV News

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (OSV News) — Retired Bishop Joseph H. Hart of Cheyenne, who headed the statewide diocese from 1978 until his retirement in 2001 and had over the years faced accusations he had sexually abused minors in years past, died Aug. 23 at Davis Hospice Center in Cheyenne, according to an Aug. 25 obituary in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle daily newspaper. He was 91.

In January 2021, what is now called the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith exonerated Bishop Hart of seven accusations of sexual abuse of minors and determined that five other accusations “could not be proven with moral certitude,” the Cheyenne Diocese announced in a statement it released that month.

However, the congregation issued a canonical rebuke of the bishop, the diocese said, “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.'”

In that 2021 diocesan statement, Bishop Steven R. Biegler of Cheyenne told survivors of sexual abuse, “I support and believe you.”

He echoed those words in a statement he released upon the news of Bishop Hart’s death.

“The passing of Joseph Hart reflects a time of sorrow. Undoubtedly his death elicits painful memories for many, especially those who sought accountability and justice,” Bishop Biegler said in an Aug. 25 statement shared with OSV News.

“The Scripture readings and the liturgy itself proclaim the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection — mysteries that apply to the deceased and to our lives,” he said. “At death, we remember that final healing, reconciliation, and judgment rests in the hands of God. We entrust the brokenness of humanity to the Lord, who alone has the power to restore us.”

“During this time of anguish,” Bishop Biegler said, “my message to those survivors (of abuse) remains, I support and believe you and will continue to work and pray for healing for all involved in this profoundly painful time.”

He expressed his condolences to Bishop Hart’s family members and assured them of his prayers. “The funeral liturgies remind us of the compassionate love of God for every single person,” he added.

Bishop Hart always maintained his innocence, “categorically and completely” denying any improper conduct.

Born Joseph Hubert Hart Sept. 26, 1931, in Kansas City, Missouri, he attended Catholic grade school and Catholic high school and went on to what is now Rockhurst University in Kansas City. He entered the seminary in 1949, studying at St. Meinrad Seminary in St. Meinrad, Indiana. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph May 1, 1956. Over the next 20 years he held various parish and diocesan posts, including vice chancellor of the diocese 1965-69.

He was pastor of St. Francis Regis Parish in Kansas City when he was made Cheyenne’s first auxiliary bishop in 1976. He was appointed its bishop two years later.

During his tenure as head of the diocese, Bishop Hart established the annual Bishop’s Appeal campaign and ordained 25 priests for the diocese. He was active in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, serving for six years as chairman of the USCCB’s Region XIll, which includes the states of Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.

Bishop Hart made national news in 1982 when he issued a pastoral letter calling the MX missile system “morally indefensible” because of its first-strike capability — just two weeks before President Ronald Reagan announced plans to base the missiles in Wyoming.

In 1985 he called for the abolition of capital punishment.

A year after he retired, the Kansas City Star daily newspaper in its coverage of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church published reports reviving a 1992 sexual molestation allegation against Bishop Hart. “I did then — and do now — categorically and completely deny any improper conduct with this young man,” the bishop said at the time.

He also acknowledged that another allegation had been made against him “in the late 1980s, but repeated in 1992.” “This allegation was also false,” he said. The revival of “these unfounded charges” caused him pain and embarrassment, he said.

Bishop Hart was accused of sexually abusing two boys from Wyoming after he became Cheyenne’s bishop in 1978. The claims came after he was accused of three instances of abuse dating to the late 1960s and early 1970s in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

In 2002, police and prosecutors in Cheyenne cleared Bishop Hart of any wrongdoing because they found “no evidence to support the allegations.”

In 2008, a settlement paid by the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese for a suit involving several accused clergy, including then-Father Hart, brought the issue to the surface again. Restrictions were placed on Bishop Hart’s public ministry in the Cheyenne Diocese.

In January 2018, Bishop Biegler, who was installed as Cheyenne’s bishop in 2017, announced that he hired an investigator to look anew into the allegations against the retired prelate in Wyoming — since there were “no trials, no determination of guilt or innocence (and) the matter was not resolved,” the diocese said at the time. He also kept in place the restrictions placed on Bishop Hart’s public ministry.

In making transparency a priority with regard to the Cheyenne Diocese’s handling of abuse claims a priority, Bishop Biegler included Bishop Hart’s name in a list of all Catholic clergy with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse of minors or vulnerable persons for whom the diocese had files and who were in active ministry from 1950 to the present.

The new investigation found the allegations credible, and in June 2019 Bishop Biegler announced the Vatican trial for Bishop Hart, the outcome of which was the determination by the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith exonerating the retired bishop of seven accusations of sexual abuse of minors and determined that five other accusations “could not be proven with moral certitude.”

On Jan. 29, 2021, Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill announced that her office would not pursue criminal charges against Bishop Hart.

In his Aug. 25 statement on Bishop Hart’s death, Bishop Biegler said that in the Wyoming diocese, “we remain steadfast in our commitment to protect the most vulnerable and to accompany those who have been harmed on a journey of healing.”

“I invite everyone to join me in prayer for healing and the restoration of the community and for all those affected by Bishop Hart’s death, especially the survivors,” he said. “The path toward healing is lifelong, and although his death will not bring closure for survivors, their family members, and others impacted, we should continue to work and pray without ceasing for the healing of everyone affected by these distressing matters.”

Funeral services for Bishop Hart and his burial “will be held at the convenience of the family,” according to the obituary in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. He is survived by his brother, Father James Hart, and his sister, Rosemary Hart. 

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