The Vatican has cleared a retired Wyoming bishop of multiple allegations he sexually abused minors and teenagers, rejecting the finding of lay experts that a half-dozen claims were credible
89-year old Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, who has long maintained his innocence, was censured by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for what it called “flagrant” imprudent behavior. Critics say it was a slap on the wrist, but Wyoming criminal prosecutors also decided last year not to proceed with charging Hart.
The Vatican panel exonerated Hart on 7 abuse accusations, determined 5 others couldn’t be proven “with moral certitude,” and ruled 2 cases involving boys 16 and 17 couldn’t be prosecuted because the church didn’t consider them minors at the time of the alleged abuse. A 13th allegation wasn’t addressed in the decree.
The Vatican decision clearly disappointed Hart’s successor, Bishop Steven Biegler, who stressed that the Vatican’s findings didn’t mean Hart was innocent, just that the Holy See determined that the high burden of proof hadn’t been met.
Biegler has stood by the findings of his own review board, pointing out it included members: “law enforcement; school administration; a doctor of psychology; a pediatrician; a psychotherapist, who treats sexually abused children; and a judge, who was a criminal prosecutor for 13 years involving crimes against children.
On the other hand, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, relies on the judgment of canon lawyers and ultimately the pope. The Vatican for decades has been blasted by victims’ groups for giving bishops a pass when they have been accused of sexual abuse themselves or of covering it up.
A few exceptions have been made in recent years, most famously in the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was defrocked after the CDF determined he had abused minors as well as adults, including during confession — essentially the same allegations against Hart.
Critics say the sentence showed the arbitrary nature of the Vatican’s deliberations and judgments in sex abuse cases, which aren’t public. Anne Barrett Doyle of the online resource BishopAccountability.org calls the Vatican ruling in the Hart case “heartbreaking and disgraceful” while showing that church law is biased in favor of priests and bishops.
“Defenders of canon law might point to the punishment of ex-cardinal McCarrick as evidence that the system works. But for every McCarrick, there are five Harts: bishops who retain their titles and pensions in the face of multiple allegations,” adding that the ruling calls into question Pope Francis’ vow to hold bishops accountable.
In its decree, the CDF rebuked Hart “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.”
Hart was also rebuked for failing to observe previous Vatican restrictions prohibiting him from having contact with minors and seminarians and from participating in public engagements. Those restrictions remain in place.
Hart was a priest in Kansas City, Mo, for 21 years before moving to Wyoming as auxiliary and then full bishop from 1976 until his retirement in 2001. The first known allegations against Hart dated to the early 1960s and were made in the late 1980s. The Kansas City diocese reached court settlements with at least 10 individuals.
Bishop Biegler said in a statement after the Vatican announcement that “I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you. I understand that this announcement will not bring closure to the survivors, their family members, Bishop Hart and all those affected.”