An international organization for survivors of sexual abuse by religious leaders condemned the Vatican's exoneration of former Wyoming Bishop Joseph Hart and called for further action by state authorities.

"We hope that, in light of this disappointing-yet-not-particulary surprising decision from the Vatican that prosecutors will now re-examine their case re-examine their previous decision, and proceed forward with the charges that were recommended," said Zach Hiner,  executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) said Tuesday.

Hart, 89, has repeatedly denied all allegations. His attorney, Tom Jubin of Cheyenne, has not only defended him, but has criticized current Bishop Steven Biegler of the Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne for his part in the investigation of the former bishop.

Monday, Biegler published a letter on the diocesan website and outlined the recent history of the investigation of allegations of sexual abuse over decades by Hart.

Bishop Steven Biegler. Courtesy, Diocese of Cheyenne
Bishop Steven Biegler. Courtesy, Diocese of Cheyenne

Three years ago, the diocese hired an investigator who had researched more than 200 allegations of abuse in numerous dioceses and he concluded that the allegations against Hart were credible, Biegler wrote. Diocesan officials and others reviewed the investigator's findings, found they were credible, agreed to report the findings to law enforcement, and presented them to the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The Cheyenne police department conducted investigations at Biegler's request, and those findings were presented to the Natrona County District Attorney's Office. District Attorney Dan Itzen did not return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.

Biegler wrote the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith did its own investigation and issued a decree that Hart was exonerated of seven accusations, and five other accusations could not be proven with "moral certitude" -- the equivalent of "beyond a reasonable doubt" in secular courts of law.

Biegler wrote, "These findings do not equate to innocence; rather, a high burden of proof has not been met."

He also wrote that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's decree stating two accusations could not be considered because the accusers were not under 16, and the decree did not mention a specific credible allegation of a male under 16 reported by the diocese.

However, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith rebuked Hart "'for his flagrant lack of prudence as a priest and bishop for being alone with minors in his private residence and on various trips, which could have been potential occasions endangering the "obligation to observe continence" and that would "give rise to scandal among the faithful."'"

The decree also reminded Hart of prohibitions having contact with minors, seminarians and vulnerable adults; and from "presiding or participating in any public celebration of the Liturgy."

Biegler closed his letter saying he supports and believes victims, and that his words will not bring closure to anyone involved.

Hiner of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests complimented Biegler for his work on this case.

He wasn't so impressed with the Vatican.

"The rebuke issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was little more than a slap on the wrist for Hart, but it was a slap in the face to the men and women who have been hurt by him and who have been trying to tell their stories for so long and hope to see a measure of justice done," Hiner said.

Hart was auxiliary bishop and then bishop of the Diocese of Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001 when he retired. Before that, he was a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri.

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