ROME – The Vatican has cleared a retired U.S. bishop of multiple allegations he sexually abused minors and teenagers, rejecting lay experts' determination that a half-dozen claims were credible and instead slapping him on the wrist for what it called “flagrant" imprudent behavior.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith exonerated retired Cheyenne, Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart of seven accusations of abuse and determined that five others couldn’t be proven “with moral certitude.” Two other cases involving boys who were 16 and 17 couldn’t be prosecuted because the Catholic Church didn’t consider them minors at the time of the alleged abuse, the diocese reported Monday. A 13th allegation wasn’t addressed in the decree.
Hart, 89, had long maintained his innocence and denied all allegations of misconduct. His attorney, Thomas Jubin, said multiple allegations against Hart were “specious,” with some based on second- and third-hand information, and with some accusers emphasizing that Hart didn't physically touch them.
“Despite this, Bishop Hart asks me to convey that he continues to pray for all involved in this case so that they may find peace and healing. He now asks, and I ask, too, that he may now be afforded peace in the twilight of this life as he prepares to meet his God in the next,” Jubin said in a statement.
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.
“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.”
It also disappointed Darrel Hunter, who said he and his two brothers were abused by Hart after he was assigned to worked at Guardian Angels Catholic Church in Kansas City near their home in the 1950s. Hunter, 73, of Prairie Village, Kan., said he did not expect the Vatican to punish Hart but he was concerned about how it treated those who came forward to say they had been abused.
He said he did not understand how Vatican officials could discount their allegations, particularly because many alleged victims live hundreds of miles apart and did not have any connection besides Hart. He said he had not heard of any victims being interviewed as part of the Vatican’s investigation, which made the “moral certitude” conclusion like a slap in the face to victims.