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CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) - Bishop David Ricken of the Diocese of Cheyenne has written a pastoral letter in support of former Bishop Joseph Hart, who has been accused of sexual misconduct with boys.

The letter written by Ricken, who succeeded Hart, has been delivered to Wyoming's Roman Catholic churches to be read Sunday.

"Bishop Hart categorically denies that he acted in any way contrary to his promise of celibacy and moral and priestly conduct," the letter said.

"This matter has been previously investigated and addressed by officials at the Diocese of Kansas City, St. Joseph, and Bishop Hart was exonerated."

The letter went on to say that if a credible accusation is made, the diocese will act promptly according to its sexual misconduct policy.

"We will see that victims are provided appropriate care, that perpetrators will be prevented from harming any additional individuals, and that all reporting requirements are followed."

Diocese spokeswoman Paula Glover said no one has brought molestation allegations to the diocese office.

The vicar general of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, the Rev. Patrick J. Rush, said Wednesday that Hart was accused in 1989 and 1992 of sexual misconduct with junior high school-aged boys in the early 1970s.

Hart was a priest at the time. He was ordained as the bishop in Cheyenne in 1976 and he retired last fall.

Rush said the 1989 accusation lacked credibility for several reasons. He said the victim, whom the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese did not identify, was offered and received counseling and "some limited financial assistance."

The 1992 complaint was brought by siblings of the alleged victim, whom the diocese also did not identify.

Rush said that complaint was made after the alleged victim had been dead for several years. The family claimed the abuse occurred when the victim was 12 or 13 years old.

The family did not ask for money but requested that the diocese investigate the matter, according to Rush.

In 1993, Hart underwent a psychiatric evaluation at Sierra Tucson in Tucson, Ariz. The institution found that Hart was not a threat to himself or others, and he returned to Cheyenne, the diocese said.

Bishop Ricken's letter to parishioners

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

It was with deep sadness that I recently learned that someone has brought allegations of sexual misconduct against my predecessor, Bishop Joseph Hart, for actions that supposedly happened 30 years ago in Kansas City.

Bishop Hart categorically denies that he acted in any way contrary to his promise of celibacy and moral and priestly conduct. This matter has been previously investigated and addressed by officials at the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and Bishop Hart was exonerated.

I have discussed this matter with Bishop Hart, reviewed the information available to me, and have confidence that Bishop Hart is telling the truth.

He has my full support.

The recent climate in our country, however, with regard to sexual abuse has brought to the church's attention, once again, the devastating effects of crimes against children; effects which often perdure for many years into their adult life. The recent media exposure has resurfaced memories for some of these victims and, as yet, there seems to be little in the way of healing that will alleviate them of their suffering. Sometimes those who have been hurt even project these memories onto someone they have known who may not have actually been the perpetrator of such actions.

The bishops of the United States will be going to Dallas in June, recognizing that we have a problem. The directive of the Holy Father and initial proposal for discussion by the cardinals from the United States will lead us to face this situation head on. I pray that we may embark upon a strong national direction, and I will implement that national strategy here in the Diocese of Cheyenne.

While we in the Catholic Church must face this situation directly, I must remind everyone that this is not just a "Catholic" problem, not just a "Catholic priest" problem, this is a "human problem."

I suggest that it may be even more of a cross-cultural problem than anyone has heretofore thought. Perhaps because of our present situation, if we, as a church, are able to address and heal our own wounds, we may be better able to serve the society in the future in a helpful way.

I want all of you to know that I, personally, along with the personnel of the Diocese of Cheyenne and the priests, deacons and religious in your parishes, take accusations of sexual misconduct of clergy and laity working for the church very seriously. On the basis of a credible accusation, we will act promptly and according to the sexual misconduct policy of our diocese, which has been in place since 1994.

We will see that victims are provided appropriate care, that perpetrators will be prevented from harming any additional individuals, and that all reporting requirements are followed.

We already have in place a thorough screening process for seminarians and deacon candidates preparing for Holy Orders and a thorough background check for lay employees and volunteers working for the church in Wyoming. We strive to see that the innocent are kept from harm.

To Bishop Hart, I would like to say that you have the thoughts and prayers of the clergy, religious and people of the Diocese of Cheyenne. Our pastoral solicitude is with you at this time when you are asked to carry the cross in a special way. For those who are placing these allegations before you, we pray for healing of the root causes of such a heavy burden for themselves and their families.

To the priests and deacons under my care, I thank you for your dedicated service of God's people, which often goes unrecognized.

Thank you for the noble way in which you are bearing a certain stigmatization that you are undergoing because of the recent climate caused by the heinous misdeeds of a few priests who have abused their position of trust because of an acquiescence to evil or because of a terrible illness, which is yet to be fully understood. My brothers, do not give in to discouragement, which is the chief weapon of the enemy.

We, as a presbyterate, must continue to express a genuine solidarity in the priesthood and not simply to give a nod to priestly brotherhood. We must care for the needs of the people entrusted to our care with great pastoral solicitude and charity and attend to them with pastoral patience and love.

I reiterate the call of the priesthood to you, the call to you and to myself, the call to live up to our celibate commitment more faithfully, the call to prayer and conversion, to spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament every day in addition to your celebration of Holy Mass, and the call to prayerful recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours and devotion to the Blessed Mother.

To my brothers and sisters in Christ, I call you to a greater holiness and challenge you, along with the priests and myself, to a greater "conformity" to Christ, our leader and our shepherd. Increase your prayers at this time, attend daily Mass as you are able, be sure you cultivate your private prayer life, stop in the church for a visit and, most importantly, gather your family for daily prayer at home.

Without you and your prayer life, we in the clergy serve no purpose. And without good and holy shepherds, you will be scattered to the four winds.

We commend ourselves to our diocesan patroness, Our Lady of the Assumption and to St. Joseph, protector of the church. We need each other, and the world needs the church as a beacon of holiness and hope. We will emerge from this crisis and these recent difficulties as a stronger and a holier people of God.

May God who has begun this good work in us bring it to completion.

 

Sincerely yours in Christ,

The Most Rev. David L. Ricken, Bishop of Cheyenne

Copyright 2002 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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