CHEYENNE, Wyo. (CNS) — A Wyoming prosecutor has decided to continue a criminal investigation of allegations of sexual abuse against a retired bishop, reversing course two weeks after saying he would no longer pursue the case.
Natrona County District Attorney Dan Itzen discussed the case of Bishop Joseph H. Hart with Cheyenne police officials June 19, leading to the reversal, reported the Casper Star-Tribune.
Cheyenne police officials, who have been investigating claims of abuse against the 88-year-old bishop, said they felt “very strongly” about their recommendation that charges be filed in the case, the newspaper said.
Investigators wanted to talk with Itzen to learn why he had decided not to proceed with charges. Police said the prosecutor told them his office misunderstood the contents of police files.
The Star-Tribune reported June 11 that one of the alleged victims was told by Itzen’s office June 8 there was “insufficient evidence” to support charging Bishop Hart. The victim spoke to the newspaper “on the condition of anonymity.” The Star-Tribune said he is from Wyoming and now lives out of state but came forward in 2002.
Prosecutors were expected to discuss the case again with the alleged victim during the week of June 22.
Bishop Hart led the Diocese of Cheyenne from 1978 until he retired in 2001. From 1976 to 1978, he was auxiliary bishop of the diocese. He would become the first U.S. bishop to face a criminal prosecution for sexual abuse of minors if charges are filed.
In reaction to the prosecutor’s earlier statement on dropping the case, Bishop Stephen R. Biegler, who has headed the diocese since 2017, said this did not mean “the victims are not credible.” He also called on Itzen’s office to explain its decision not to pursue criminal charges in a June 11 statement.
The diocese had determined the allegations of sexual abuse were credible after Bishop Biegler reopened the investigation into the retired bishop.
The diocesan investigation led Cheyenne police to open their own case in 2018, leading to the recommendation Bishop Hart and another man be charged in connection with sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s.
In June 2019, Bishop Biegler announced the retired prelate will face a Vatican trial for allegations that he sexually abused several minors years ago. However, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continues to investigate the allegations.
Bishop Hart has “categorically and completely” denied any improper conduct.
He faces accusations that he abused two boys from Wyoming after he became Cheyenne’s bishop.
The Wyoming allegations came after several men accused Bishop Hart of sexually abusing them years earlier, when he was a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri. Ordained for that diocese May 1, 1956, he was accused of three instances of abuse during the late 1960s and early 1970s there.