Another abuser Catholic bishop: Crux pieces together the long, painful story of Joseph Hart

Every so often, a piece of investigative journalism shows up that bears mention, which is why I wanted to draw attention to a three-part Crux series on the disgraced former Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart and the tale of sex abuse allegations that have dogged him for years.

There’s more. This is also the story of the bishop who took his place and how he was determined to bring some just into the situation. Not all bishops are so minded.

The series, written by their national correspondent Christopher White, ran this past week and starts here with the story of one family.

KANSAS CITY, Missouri — As parishioners attended the Feast of the Assumption Mass inside Guardian Angels Catholic Church on August 15, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) gathered outside on the sidewalk for a press conference marking an occasion that many believed would never come.

Less than 24 hours earlier, police in Cheyenne, Wyoming recommended to prosecutors that a one-time Guardian Angels priest, who would go on to become a beloved Catholic bishop, face criminal charges for the sexual abuse of minors.

Prior to being named a bishop, Joseph Hart had served in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for the first two decades of his priesthood, following ordination in 1956. Although his ecclesial career has spanned over five decades, serving in two states where he was widely popular, he has been trailed by allegations of serial abuse — which he has consistently denied — dodging both civil and canonical adjudication for more than two decades.

Now, in the twilight of his life he not only faces criminal charges, where he could become the first U.S. bishop ever to face criminal prosecution for abuse, but also the possibility of being stripped of his title of bishop and removed from the clerical state as a church trial in the Vatican is also underway.

By the 1960s, Hart is accused of moving on to:

… organized sexual assault, becoming close companions with two of the diocese’s most notorious abusers: Monsignor Thomas O’Brien and Father Thomas Reardon…

Hart was a regular presence at a home on Lake Viking owned by O’Brien and his sister, described to Crux in interviews with six of their victims, as ground zero for predatory behavior and abuse, with Hart both a participant and an observer in the abuse that took place there.

Seventy-five miles north of Guardian Angels parish, O’Brien’s home on Lake Viking was a revolving door of high school boys, many of whom worked around the parishes and were recruited for what was described as “vocational discernment” weekends. Once there, they were greeted with a buffet of vices, including free-flowing alcohol, marijuana, and pornography.

“What happened at that lake house makes Ted McCarrick look like a saint,” said one priest familiar with the litany of abuse allegations that took place at Lake Viking - a reference to the high-profile former archbishop of Washington who was found guilty of abuse and after a Vatican investigation, removed from the priesthood.

The McCarrick reference concerns a beach house in Sea Girt, N.J., that McCarrick used as a place to invite seminarians to relax for the weekend. One would always be required to share his bed.

The story then goes into a litany of young men who were abused by Hart and who then turned to alcohol, drugs and sometimes suicide.

Part two of the series deals with Wyoming, the state Hart moved to in 1976. It tells the story of a boy who was repeatedly molested by Hart there and who tried to report the incidents to the police decades later. A cursory investigation found Hart to be innocent.

Yet, Hart’s successor Bishop Paul Etienne, knew of the charges and apparently tried to forward them onto the Vatican with no results. He then passed them on to his successor, Bishop Steven Biegler, in 2017. Still, few laity believed there was anything wrong.

For Biegler, one of the chief challenges, both with the faithful at home and among his fellow brother bishops, has been confronting shocking allegations against a man they have known as a Catholic bishop for 43 years and who during that time was a larger than life personality, recognized by everyone in the state, and well-regarded by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

“It is natural to believe a friend whom you’ve known for decades, rather than an anonymous victim, especially when many people see victims with suspicion. Society has an attitude of suspicion and distrust toward victims,” Biegler told Crux.

Those longstanding relationships in small towns where everyone seems to know everyone have been especially frustrating for both Biegler and Martin’s family, where a figure like Hart can still show up at the town’s major events and in some quarters manage to receive a hero’s welcome.

The third part points out that even with a lot of evidence, it has taken decades to remove these abuser bishops.

The family of Martin, one of Hart’s alleged victims, — who describes Biegler as a “Godsend” — are also frustrated by a system that allowed a man with a long history of abuse to remain in power for five decades and ascend the ranks of church leadership with few efforts to stop him despite nearly two decades of trying to sound the alarm in Cheyenne after he began abusing Martin in the confessional and on camping trips during the late 1970s.

This is so close what I (and many others) experienced with the former Cardinal McCarrick; even after years of rumors about the man, the Vatican stalled and stalled on all the accusations. The article ends with a description of a new generation of bishops, including Biegler who went after Hart as soon as he was made bishop of the Cheyenne diocese.

If you want to know more about Biegler, CNN did a story a year ago about how unusual Biegler’s reforms were. The Casper Star-Tribune has done some recent work on the story to the point of knocking on Hart’s door and trying to engage him.

Hart declined to speak with the reporter and referred comment to his attorney, Tom Jubin, who has not replied to repeated attempts to contact him in recent weeks. The bishop, who is well into his 80s, had an oxygen tube in his nostrils. Asked if he had anything he wanted to say, he told the reporter to have a good day and closed the door…

The folks with the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, the article said, want Hart shipped off to a rural Kansas friary. Oddly, the story doesn’t mention that St. Fidelis Friary in Victoria, Kansas, is also the home of McCarrick. The Casper paper adds:

Perhaps inconveniently for the church in cases like Hart’s, there are guidelines requiring that retired bishops be taken care of. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its financial management guidelines, recommends a stipend of $1,900 per month be given to retired bishops. The organization also calls for “appropriate housing and board,” “an insured automobile” and “health and welfare benefits.”

I hope I haven’t missed reporting from other publications along the way and I can’t really add much to this series other than to say I’m glad Crux took it on. It was obviously a ton of work.

The bottom line: The Crux team got the journalism work done, putting this massive story into context in one place, in one ongoing narrative.

What coverage of Hart I have seen has been spread out among multiple publications, making it unclear how bad and lengthy this mess was. Keep your eyes on Vatican as they decide what to do with this bishop. It may be that the former Cardinal McCarrick may not be the only prelate stripped of his priesthood this year.

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