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Vatican clears retired U.S. bishop of multiple sex-abuse claims

A view of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City
A view of an empty St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City on Jan. 17.
(Andrew Medichini / Associated Press)

The Vatican has essentially slapped a retired U.S. bishop on the wrist for “flagrant lack of prudence” in his behavior with teenagers, even though a diocesan review board determined that a half-dozen allegations of sexual abuse against him were credible.

The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cleared retired Bishop Joseph Hart of Cheyenne, Wyo., of seven accusations of abuse. It also determined that five other allegations couldn’t be proven “with moral certitude” and that two cases involving boys who were 16 and 17 couldn’t be prosecuted given that the Roman Catholic Church didn’t consider them minors at the time of the alleged abuse, the diocese reported Monday. Another allegation wasn’t addressed in the decree.

Hart, 89, had long maintained his innocence and denied all allegations of misconduct.

The Vatican’s decision clearly disappointed Hart’s successor, Bishop Steven Biegler, who has stood by the judgment of his diocesan review board that some of the allegations against Hart were credible. Biegler stressed that the Vatican’s decision did not mean that Hart was innocent — only that the Holy See determined that the high burden of proof hadn’t been met.

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A statement from Biegler’s diocese noted the qualifications of members of its review board: “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, primarily child sexual abuse.”

By contrast, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or CDF, relies on the judgment of priests and bishop 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.

Two priests are going on trial before the Vatican’s criminal tribunal, one accused of sexually abusing an altar boy and the other 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 that he had abused minors as well as adults, including during confession — essentially the same kind of allegations against Hart.

The outcome of Hart’s case shows the unpredictable, some say arbitrary, nature of the Vatican’s canonical sex-abuse judgments, which aren’t public. Hart’s previous diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph reached court settlements years ago with at least 10 alleged victims. But Wyoming criminal prosecutors also decided last year not to proceed with charging Hart.

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,’” the diocese said.

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, the diocese said, adding that those restrictions remain in place.

Priests, lay experts and canon lawyers say the Vatican needs to revisit how the church protects its seminarians, nuns and even rank-and-file parishioners from problem bishops and cardinals.

“Today, I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you” Biegler said in a statement. “I understand that this announcement will not bring closure to the survivors, their family members, Bishop Hart and all those affected.”

Hart was a priest in Kansas City, Mo., for 21 years before moving to Wyoming, where he served as auxiliary and then full bishop from 1976 until his retirement in 2001. The first known allegations against Hart were made in the late 1980s and concerned alleged abuse in the early 1960s.

At least six men came forward in the past few years to say Hart abused them in Wyoming.


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