The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests
SNAP Press Release
For immediate release: Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010
For more information: David Clohessy of St. Louis, SNAP National Director (314) 566 9790 cell, Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, SNAP Outreach Coordinator (314) 862 7688
Abuse victims challenge new top Wyoming Catholic official
They beg him to “learn of & discuss your accused predecessor”
A Missouri diocese paid settlements to 6 who were molested by now-retired bishop
Yet he walks free & church staffers are silent about his status, guilt and whereabouts and a wing of a children’s home is still named after credibly accused child molesting cleric
SNAP to Etienne: “Just meet with alleged victims, read documents, and announce your findings”
A group of clergy sex abuse victims is challenging the new head of the Wyoming Catholic church to “show courage, explore and publicly discuss” child sex abuse allegations against his now-retired predecessor, Bishop Joseph Hart. The organization also wants Wyoming’s new bishop to meet with Hart’s accusers, get Hart’s personnel files and legal records about the lawsuits, and publicly say whether he finds the charges credible or not.
Leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests are writing Cheyenne Bishop Paul Etienne about Hart, who also headed the Wyoming diocese until he retired in 2001.
Late in 2008, six men settled their child sex abuse and cover up cases against the Kansas City MO Catholic diocese, in which they name Hart as the man who molested them. Hart worked as a priest in Kansas City before he became Wyoming’s bishop in 1976.
“Bishop Etienne, here’s your first real leadership test: Will you recklessly ignore or compassionately address serious child sex charges against your predecessor?” asks the self help group, in a letter sent today to Etienne by fax and email.
“It’s just irresponsible to ignore these settlements and let uninformed or unsuspecting Wyoming parents trust their kids around a credibly accused child molester,” said David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director.
“The least Etienne can do is get Hart’s personnel files from Kansas City, get legal documents about these cases, meet with his victims, and tell his flock if he thinks these six men are telling lies or the truth.”
"This step would show your flock that you’re open-minded, courageous and sensitive," said Clohessy.
At a 2005 news conference outside the diocesan offices in Cheyenne, SNAP called for removing Hart's name from a building at St. Joseph's Children's Home in Torrington. The residential facility is owned and operated by the Cheyenne diocese. For 25 years, Hart was the president of the home's board.
Then-Cheyenne bishop David Ricken told the National Catholic Reporter that “none of the accusations against Hart have been deemed credible. . .”
SNAP says this is no longer the case.
“It’s preposterous to suggest that six men are all fabricating these charges and that they’ve fooled their own attorneys, savvy church lawyers and independent mediators,” said Clohessy. “It’s equally preposterous to claim that the Kansas City diocese paid all this money as ‘Christian charities’ to liars.”
Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, SNAP’s outreach director, predicts that unless Etienne acts, other kids will be molested by Hart.
“Child molesting clerics are often shrewd, clever, charming and manipulative,” she said. “That’s how they get by with their crimes for so long.”
Particularly vulnerable, she believes, are families that are immigrants, don’t reach much or have moved into Wyoming recently.
“Hart will approach them, charm them, molest their kids, and then decades from now, those kids will become adults who are finally strong enough to report having been victimized,” she said.
When that happens, Dorris says, “tongues will cluck and heads will shake and some Catholics will be shocked, but the damage will already have been done – damage that could be prevented if only Bishop Etienne is brave enough to look into and then tell the truth about these credible allegations.”
Hart is now retired but still lives in Wyoming. He has denied the allegations. Periodically, SNAP has heard from concerned Wyoming citizens who report having seen him in restaurants and stores accompanied by children.
Hart has not been criminally charged. He is not believed to be facing any pending civil cases.
The allegations against Hart stem from his years at five KC parishes (Guardian Angel, Visitation, St. Therese, St. James, and St. John Francis Regis). Accusations of sexual misconduct against Hart surfaced first in 1989 and 1992.
Hart is the second Kansas City priest to become a bishop, face child sex abuse lawsuits, and have those lawsuits be settled. (A case against the other one, Bishop Joseph V. Sullivan, was resolved last year in Louisiana with a $225,000 pay out.)
Hart has been represented by attorney Lawrence Ward of Kansas City and by Wyoming attorney Jack Speight. His victims are represented by attorney Rebecca Randles of Kansas City (816 510 2704 cell, 816 931 9901) and Patrick Noaker of Minnesota (612 961 1307 cell, 651 227 9990).
Etinenne was installed as Cheyenne’s bishop two months ago. His immediate predecessor, Ricken, was appointed to head the Green Bay, Wis., Diocese in July of 2008.
A copy of SNAP’s letter to Etienne is below:
Feb. 17, 2010
Dear Bishop Etienne:
In a nutshell, here’s your first real public test of leadership as Wyoming’s bishop: Will you recklessly ignore or compassionately address serious child sex abuse charges against your predecessor? And if you ignore them, how will you feel if you learn, years from now, that he molested another child in your diocese on your watch?”
We are confident that you know the basics: Six men accuse Bishop Joseph Hart of molesting them. One of the victims is from Wyoming. The others are from Missouri. All six filed civil lawsuits. Those lawsuits have been settled. Through his lawyers, Hart professes his alleged innocence. But he’s never once addressed these allegations publicly, or even given one interview to one journalist about them.
You also know that the overwhelming majority of accusations of child sex abuse against Catholic clerics are true. And you know that Catholic bishops rarely settle litigation involving accusers who aren’t credible.
Hart walks free. He owns homes in Wyoming and Missouri. Though technically retired, he obviously has access to kids. And he could be molesting children even now.
The issue is: What will you do?
We repeatedly asked your immediate predecessor, Bishop Ricken, to aggressively reach out to others who may have harmed by Hart and take his name off a Torrington’s children’s home. That’s still what we believe should happen.
But for starters, we’re asking you to take a much more simple and non-controversial step: just look into the allegations yourself, meet with his accusers, and then announce your decision – are they telling the truth or telling lies?
This is not an academic exercise. Again, Hart could be tutoring a struggling young student this afternoon or babysitting a neighbor’s child tonight. He could be molesting him or her as you read this.
Our request may well be the best way to show that you take abuse seriously and are courageous enough to deal with allegations head on.
It may well be the best way to help heal the wounds of those Hart has assaulted. It may well be the best way to help Catholics in your diocese move forward without this unresolved cloud hanging over the Cheyenne diocese. And it is, in our view, definitely the best way to ultimately protect kids from Hart, now and in the future.
If you don’t make such a probe and announcement, here’s the lesson Catholics learn: “It’s OK to ignore serious accusations of child sex abuse against a clergyman. If we just pretend such things aren’t happening, they’ll eventually just go away.” Is that the signal you want to send your flock?
And the lesson child sex victims will learn is equally troubling:
“Don’t bother speaking up. No one will believe you. Nothing will happen. Powerful adults who could help you heal will ignore you.”
Think, Bishop, about the lingering doubts and questions you are inheriting. At least some Wyoming citizens and Catholics must wonder “Is Hart still being paid?” “Is he still welcome at church functions?”
“If Missouri church officials apparently found the accusations credible, why are Wyoming church officials saying and doing nothing?” “If some of the predator priests are being monitored or defrocked, is Hart being monitored or defrocked?”
Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests