The criminal investigation into sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy in Wyoming passed its second birthday in April, a prolonged process with no end in sight that has “shattered” an alleged victim’s family’s belief in the criminal justice system.
In August, Cheyenne police recommended that retired bishop Joseph Hart, the highest-ranking member of the Catholic church in Wyoming for 25 years, be charged with sexual abuse. The investigation and the documents detailing the allegations were then turned over to Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen, who will serve as special prosecutor should charges be filed because of a conflict of interest in the prosecutor’s office in Cheyenne.
But nothing has happened since. Itzen has repeatedly declined to comment. Cheyenne police said late last year that Itzen had passed the investigation back to them for some further work, but a police spokesman told the Star-Tribune that Itzen now has the case back.
“We thought things would’ve moved by now,” then-Cheyenne police spokesman Kevin Malatesta said in November.
“I honestly have no answer for you,” current spokesman David Inman said when asked why nothing had happened with the investigation. “The case is in (prosecutors’) hands now. You can try to have their D.A. contact me if you’d like, but there is no answer I or detectives can give you as to why it is being held up.”
Messages sent to Itzen this week were not returned.
Cheyenne Police launched an initial investigation in April 2018, after the Diocese of Cheyenne began an independent inquiry into Hart. The stagnation has frustrated one of the alleged victims and his family.
“Day after day we wait to hear from the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office regarding the criminal prosecution into Joseph Hart,” a relative of the alleged victim told the Star-Tribune. “We have struggled to remain patient. As a family we have been further victimized by the lack of response from the prosecutor.”
The relative added their “belief in the system has been shattered.”
Hart has been dogged by accusations of sexual abuse for roughly 30 years, stretching beyond his time as the head of the Catholic flock in Wyoming and through his prior 20 years as a priest in Missouri. At least six men have accused Hart of sexually abusing them in Wyoming, and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has settled lawsuits with several more alleged victims.
Hart has consistently denied the accusations. An email sent earlier this week to his lawyer was not returned. The attorney, Tom Jubin, has not returned messages sent by the Star-Tribune over the past several months.
In 2002, an accuser came forward to say Hart had abused him in the 1970s. After a swift investigation, that inquiry was closed and deemed “unfounded.” The victim has maintained that he stopped responding to police investigators because of how they treated him.
In July 2018, the Cheyenne diocese called that criminal investigation “flawed.” The Wyoming church had opened its own inquiry in late 2017, under the guidance of Bishop Steven Biegler. That July, the diocese announced it had concluded that Hart had abused two boys in Wyoming several decades ago; since then, four more men have come forward and had their claims deemed credible by church officials.
During its independent inquiry, the church reached out to Cheyenne police, who began investigating. That police inquiry lasted for 16 months, concluding in August with the agency recommending charges against two men. In response to a Star-Tribune public records request, the top prosecutor in Cheyenne confirmed that Hart was one of those men.
Despite repeated allegations and court settlements, little was done about Hart for years. The 2002 investigation was closed, and Hart’s predecessor, David Ricken, took no action at all related to the retired bishop. Biegler’s predecessor, Paul Etienne, asked the Vatican to investigate in 2010; it’s unclear what became of that investigation. Spokesmen for both men — who still serve in high-ranking roles in the church — declined to comment last year about whether either regretted their handling of Hart.
The church’s recent investigation has apparently sparked action at the Vatican. Church leaders are apparently undertaking their own investigation and trial of Hart within the organization. The status of that process is unknown; previous requests sent to the Vatican seeking comment have not been returned.
Source: STAR TRIBUNE