Wyoming Bishop Accused of Serial Sexual Abuse Dies

For the past 22 years, Ed Gavagan has been in what he calls a race against time.

Seeking justice for the sexual abuse he suffered as a teenager and later disclosed as an adult, Gavagan watched the man he accused — a Catholic priest — grow old while evading repeated efforts to hold him accountable. He even wrote to Pope Francis asking for his help.

When he heard Joseph Hart, the former bishop for Wyoming, died Wednesday, Gavagan was left feeling like he should have done more to pursue justice, he said. At 60 years old, with decades between him and the abuse, he had to remind himself that what happened was not his fault.

When justice feels unattainable, “it’s just awful,” Gavagan said. “It’s layers of misery on top of injury on top of distrust.”

Hart, who faced multiple sexual abuse allegations found credible by the Diocese of Cheyenne, was 91.

Hart served as bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 to 2001. Men first came forward with allegations of abuse in 1989.

In 2018 the current bishop, Steven Biegler, announced that an examination initiated by the diocese and conducted by an outside investigator concluded Hart sexually abused two boys in Wyoming. A month later, the diocese — which confirmed Hart’s death in a brief statement Thursday morning — reported a third abuse allegation against Hart that it deemed credible.

Hart, through an attorney, repeatedly denied abusing any children, and police investigations from 2002 and 2018 did not result in criminal charges. A Vatican investigation later exonerated Hart of multiple child sex abuse allegations, while finding other allegations could not be proven with a “moral certitude.”

The Vatican did rebuke Hart, however, “for his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips.” It further rebuked him for failing to “refrain from public engagements that would cause scandal among the faithful due to numerous accusations against him and the civil and canonical investigations and processes being conducted in this regard.”

Biegler, for his part, continued to support Hart’s accusers.

“Today, I want the survivors to know that I support and believe you,” he said in a statement at the time of the Vatican’s decision.

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