Wyoming bishop accused of serial sexual abuse dies

— Joseph Hart’s accusers grieve lack of accountability despite church officials substantiating their allegations.

In this Sept. 19, 1988 file photo, Bishop Joseph Hart dispenses communion during an outdoor Mass celebrated for participants of the Basque Festival in Buffalo, Wyo.

By Tennessee Watson and Joshua Wolfson

For the past 22 years, Ed Gavagan has been in what he calls a race against time.

Seeking justice for the sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager and later disclosed as an adult, Gavagan watched the man he accused — a Catholic priest — grow old while evading repeated efforts to hold him accountable. He even wrote to Pope Francis asking for his help.

When he heard Joseph Hart, the former bishop for Wyoming, died Wednesday, Gavagan was left feeling like he should have done more to pursue justice, he said. At 60 years old, with decades between him and the abuse, he had to remind himself that what happened was not his fault.

When justice feels unattainable, “it’s just awful,” Gavagan said. “It’s layers of misery on top of injury on top of distrust.”

Hart, who faced multiple sexual abuse allegations found credible by the Diocese of Cheyenne, was 91.

Hart served as bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 to 2001. Men first came forward with allegations of abuse in 1989.

In 2018 the current bishop, Steven Biegler, announced that an examination initiated by the diocese and conducted by an outside investigator concluded Hart sexually abused two boys in Wyoming. A month later, the diocese — which confirmed Hart’s death in a brief statement Thursday morning — reported a third abuse allegation against Hart that it deemed credible.

Hart, through an attorney, repeatedly denied abusing any children, and police investigations from 2002 and 2018 did not result in criminal charges. A Vatican investigation later exonerated Hart of multiple child sex abuse allegations, while finding other allegations could not be proven with a “moral certitude.”

The Vatican did rebuke Hart, however, “for his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips.” It further rebuked him for failing to “refrain from public engagements that would cause scandal among the faithful due to numerous accusations against him and the civil and canonical investigations and processes being conducted in this regard.”

Biegler, for his part, continued to support Hart’s accusers.

“Today, I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you,” he said in a statement at the time of the Vatican’s decision.

Multi-state accusations

Before coming to Wyoming, Hart served as a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph from 1956 to 1976. Starting in 1989, multiple men accused him of sexually abusing them as boys while a priest in Kansas City, according to the Cheyenne diocese. While church officials at the time dismissed the allegations, Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop James V. Johnson in 2018 found the allegations to be substantiated, according to reporting from the Kansas City Star.

The diocese there reached financial settlements with accusers in 2008 and 2014 based on allegations tied to Hart and other priests.

In 1976, Hart became an auxiliary bishop for the Cheyenne diocese, then became bishop two years later.

In 2002, Cheyenne police received a report that Hart sexually abused a teenage boy in the 1970s both in Kansas City and in Wyoming. A detective interviewed the accuser, but the prosecutor in the case, then-Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan, cleared Hart of wrongdoing, stating the allegations were “without merit.”

The survivor, who later identified himself as Ed Gavagan, said it felt as if the detective had made up his mind before the interview began.

‘A black mark’

Upon hearing the news of Hart’s death, Gavagan processed his feelings by writing his own obituary for the late bishop, which he shared with WyoFile.

“May the numerous district attorneys and the special prosecutor along with the police departments in Cheyenne and Kansas City as well as the FBI in both cities bear his dying without accountability as a black mark upon their professed missions to investigate crime, uphold the law, and confront evil,” Gavagan wrote.

“Chilon of Sparta, quoted in 300 AD, said that we should not speak ill of the dead,” Gavagan concluded. “In Hart’s case, remaining silent would be complicit. We must speak up, those institutions must listen and do better.”

Gavagan heard the news from his sister, who still lives in Cheyenne. “She’s lived there her whole life. As soon as anything happens, she gets the word.”

But that responsibility shouldn’t have fallen to his sister, Gavagan said. “I’m pretty disappointed that the diocese didn’t call me or text me to let me know.”

This June 13, 2019 file photo shows the offices for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne and the Cathedral of St. Mary in Cheyenne.

Biegler took over as bishop of Cheyenne in 2017. He ordered a new investigation, which found “substantial new evidence” while also concluding the 2002 investigation was flawed. A diocesan review board concurred with the new investigation’s findings that the allegations against Hart were “credible and sustained,” according to a diocese announcement from 2018.

By then, Hart had already been restricted by a past bishop from celebrating public liturgical services. Biegler extended that restriction.

The Diocese of Cheyenne also passed along the results of its investigation to authorities in Cheyenne, and police there launched a new criminal case. Detectives ultimately recommended prosecutors pursue charges against Hart, but the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office, which handled the prosecution, declined. They informed Gavagan that they thought Hart had victimized him, but did not believe a prosecution of the then-retired bishop would be successful, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. Documents later revealed a rift existed between police in Cheyenne and the prosecutors in Casper.

Lost opportunity

Hart’s death ended any opportunity to hold the priest accountable in the mortal world. But Gavagan’s strongest emotions have less to do with the former-bishop’s actions and more to do with the response he got when he reported the abuse. “I’m over Hart,” Gavagan said. “It’s about the institutions now.”

Without justice, that leaves “a lingering question in the air,” about whether to believe the victims, Gavagan said. “It seems incredible to think that they all were lying, but if they weren’t lying then how come nobody ever did anything?”

Gavagan’s daughter is 14 years old — the same age he was when he says he was abused — which adds another layer to the pain he already feels about the lack of justice.

“What I have said to people is that you’re always going to have a bad cop, you’re always going to have an incompetent doctor, you’re always going to have a pedophile priest, it’s the world, it’s humanity, it’s people,” Gavagan said. “But what you hope is that the good cops root out the bad cops and stand up for the honor of their badge and their commitment and their mission.”

“For years, I’ve held the idea that if Jesus Christ walked into the Vatican today he would have some tough questions for the people that are there.”

Darrel Hunter

Gavagan was featured in the 2021 Netflix documentary “Procession,” which centered on several men who said they were sexually abused by priests as children. The film was screened in Wyoming at events hosted by the Diocese of Cheyenne.

Hart declined to speak to a Star-Tribune reporter who sought an interview at his home several years ago. His lawyer, Tom Jubin, steadfastly denied the abuse allegations and accused the Cheyenne diocese of “engaging in a smear campaign,” the newspaper reported.

Jubin did not respond by press time to an email seeking comment for this story.

“There’s a profound disappointment in the fact that he as a person didn’t make the attempt to find a just reconciliation,” said Darrel Hunter, another of Hart’s accusers. “As a religious leader, [he] didn’t attempt to make any kind of an amends for his behavior.”

Hunter, who knew Hart from his time in Kansas City, accused the priest of abusing him when he was 12 years old in 1959. He’s now 75 years old.

“For years, I’ve held the idea that if Jesus Christ walked into the Vatican today he would have some tough questions for the people that are there,” Hunter said. “His question would be, ‘what was it that I said, that made you think that this is what I meant?’”

Rather than defend the vulnerable, the church has protected the powerful, Hunter said.

“If you’re supposed to love God and love your fellow man without any qualifications, I don’t think that they’ve succeeded at that.”

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