[This is part one of The Tablet’s three-part investigative series into Bishop Joseph Hart, who could become the first U.S. bishop to face criminal prosecution for abuse.]
By Christopher White, The Tablet’s National Correspondent
KANSAS CITY, Missouri – As parishioners attended the Feast of the Assumption Mass inside Guardian Angels Catholic Church on August 15, members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) gathered outside on the sidewalk for a press conference marking an occasion that many believed would never come.
Less than 24 hours earlier, police in Cheyenne, Wyoming recommended to prosecutors that a one-time Guardian Angels priest, who would go on to become a beloved Catholic bishop, face criminal charges for the sexual abuse of minors.
Prior to being named a bishop, Joseph Hart had served in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph for the first two decades of his priesthood, following ordination in 1956. Although his ecclesial career has spanned over five decades, serving in two states where he was widely popular, he has been trailed by allegations of serial abuse – which he has consistently denied – dodging both civil and canonical adjudication for more than two decades.
Now, in the twilight of his life he not only faces criminal charges, where he could become the first U.S. bishop ever to face criminal prosecution for abuse, but also the possibility of being stripped of his title of bishop and removed from the clerical state as a church trial in the Vatican is also underway.
Hart turns 88 in September, and both civil and church officials are under pressure from his victims to render earthly judgment before he meets that of the world to come.
Testing the Waters
Darrel Hunter believes he was likely Father Joseph Hart’s first victim.
The Hunter family lived two blocks from Guardian Angels, where Hart was a priest from 1956 to 1962, and where the family of twelve was a fixture at the parish and its neighboring school.
The leafy working class neighborhood was full of Catholic families, but no one was more devoted to the young priest than Stella Hunter, the family matriarch. Hart’s picture graced the family’s walls, and he would regularly show up for dinner unannounced, popping in the side door of the home without even knocking.
Later, when the growing diocese was expanding and a new parish, St. John Francis Regis Catholic Church, was built – where Hart would later serve as pastor from 1969 to 1976 – Stella served as a loyal secretary up until her death in 1984.
In 1959, at age 12, Darrel worked around the parish taking out trash and attending to other small maintenance tasks on the parish grounds. In the same way that Hart had become a fixture around the family home, Darrel had become a regular presence at the church. For that reason, he didn’t think anything of it when Hart invited him inside the church to have a rest and chat.
“How much do you know about sex?” Hart asked him.
When Darrel said that he knew nothing of it, Darrel claims that Hart took the liberty of graphically offering a sex education course as they sat next to each other in the pews. He then proceeded to grab the inside of Darrel’s leg, only to stop when someone entered the back of the church to pray.
“He didn’t get any further than that with me, thank God,” Darrel told The Tablet in an interview in early August. “I believe he was just beginning to test the waters then.”
As Darrel tells it, “after that happened though, he always treated me different. The dynamics changed considerably.”
While Hart may have written Darrel off, he would soon take an interest in his young brother, including invitations for exclusive weekend retreats with Hart and his fellow priests.
Ground Zero for Abuse
Although Hart might have been testing the waters in 1959, by the following decade he had graduated to organized sexual assault, becoming close companions with two of the diocese’s most notorious abusers: Monsignor Thomas O’Brien and Father Thomas Reardon.
In 1989 Reardon left the priesthood and in 1983, O’Brien was sent for substance abuse treatment and had his ministry restricted, but not before first having unleashed devastation on the young Catholic boys of the diocese, according to their victims.
By 2019, the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph had settled 10 cases of abuse against Hart. In two settlements alone – one in 2008 and another in 2014 – the diocese has paid out nearly $20 million dollars to more than 50 plaintiffs in cases that included Hart, Reardon, and O’Brien.
Hart was a regular presence at a home on Lake Viking owned by O’Brien and his sister, described to The Tablet in interviews with six of their victims, as ground zero for predatory behavior and abuse, with Hart both a participant and an observer in the abuse that took place there.
Seventy-five miles north of Guardian Angels parish, O’Brien’s home on Lake Viking was a revolving door of high school boys, many of whom worked around the parishes and were recruited for what was described as “vocational discernment” weekends. Once there, they were greeted with a buffet of vices, including free-flowing alcohol, marijuana, and pornography.
“What happened at that lake house makes Ted McCarrick look like a saint,” said one priest familiar with the litany of abuse allegations that took place at Lake Viking – a reference to the high-profile former archbishop of Washington who was found guilty of abuse and after a Vatican investigation, removed from the priesthood.
Pat Lamb, who worked during middle school as a groundskeeper at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary where O’Brien served from 1981 – 1983, recalls being taken to Lake Viking weekly, where upon arriving at the house he’d be offered a whiskey and coke – the first of many he would consume in the company of O’Brien, Reardon, and Hart.
On one occasion, after mowing the grass, he claims he headed upstairs to the guestroom to shower and nap – only to wake up to find O’Brien undoing his pants and fondling him.
One former altar boy, also from Nativity parish, who requested anonymity, recalls being forced to rub O’Brien down with sun lotion while he was completely naked.
“We were too afraid to tell anyone else because it was just embarrassing for us,” Lamb told The Tablet. “I mean, these were well-known priests. Who was going to believe us? But we did try to warn the other boys not to go to Lake Viking.”
“When news finally came out about these guys, my parents said ‘can you believe this?’ I was just relieved to finally be able to say, ‘yes, I can.’”
Lamb, who has since sought regular treatment for alcohol abuse, described in tears the trust and betrayal issues he’s faced since high school, coming to terms with the abuse he suffered at the hands of priests.
“It causes so many ripple effects in a person’s life,” he told The Tablet. “But some of them are dead, so I guess I’m in pretty good shape in comparison,” noting that other victims of abuse from the era have since committed suicide or died of drug overdoses.
Today, he’s an actor trying to use art to process his suffering in search of redemption – a chance Darrel Hunter’s younger brother, Kevin, never got.
‘This Body Count is His Legacy’
Kathy Donegan recalls that her younger brother Kevin was her closest friend. As the two youngest in the sprawling Hunter family, they looked to one another as allies telling each other almost everything.
When Kevin struggled to adjust to high school, the family looked to Hart – who still remained among the closest of family friends – to take him under his wing, which led to him taking Kevin on a road trip through the southwest in 1971.
The family knew that something was different with Kevin after that trip, but it would take another decade before they understand why.
During high school, Kevin began experimenting with drugs, an addiction that continued through his twenties, resulting in a downward spiral of abuse. Despite friction among the family, they sought to support Kevin along the way, including soliciting Hart’s intervention on one occasion when he was visiting from Cheyenne where he had been named an auxiliary bishop in 1976, taking over the helm of the diocese in 1978.
Donegan told The Tablet that when her older brother Mike picked Kevin up from his meeting with Hart in 1984, he was trembling, telling him “Bishop Hart is the reason I am this way.”
He would go on to tell his siblings that Hart had forced him to sleep with him while on the road trip, leading to years of depression and self-destructive behavior, ultimately leading to him contracting AIDS.
In 1989, he died of complications from the disease, having spent the final months of his life sober and even singing in the church choir. But what should have been some of the best years of his life had been lost forever, beginning with those regular weekend visits to Lake Viking.
“He took my brother and my best friend away from me,” Donegan told The Tablet.
As for Darrel Hunter, he believes Kevin’s death was merely the first in his family that could be traced to Hart’s abuse.
Along with Kevin, Darrel’s brother Mike would go on to admit that when he was in high school, Hart had reached into his pants and groped him.
Mike would go on to lead the Kansas City chapter of SNAP, keeping a notebook of local victims of abuse and, despite being known for his meek personality, never failed to accompany fellow victims to press conferences and court appearances.
He, too, struggled with alcohol abuse, which he attributed to the trauma he experienced from Hart, yet his siblings recall a brother who spent every spare moment he had with victims, often on the phone in the middle of the night trying to convince them not to commit suicide. In 2015, Mike died from a heart attack at age 66, which his siblings believe to be a direct result of the physical and emotional toll all this took on him.
“This body count is his legacy,” said Donegan, referring to Hart.
A Moral Obligation to Speak Up
When Stella Hunter, who had been Hart’s steadfast secretary – doing his Christmas shopping, paying his bills without asking for reimbursement, and lending out her car when he returned to Kansas City – was diagnosed with cancer in 1984, she penned a letter to Hart, instructing her husband not to give it to Hart until after her death.
Stella’s husband honored those instructions and to this day, the family remains unaware of the contents of her letter. Most of the Hunter family, however, are convinced it was a letter informing Hart that she was aware of his misdeeds and the betrayal she felt.
“The envelope for that letter was addressed simply to ‘Joseph Hart,’” Darrel told The Tablet “As a parish secretary for 30 years, my mother spent her life addressing priests and members of the Church with their proper titles. For me, it cannot just be a coincidence that she left off the word ‘bishop’ on that envelope. She knew exactly what sort of statement she was making.”
If Stella waited until death to confront Hart, Kevin’s older sister Susie McClernon was the one who was finally convinced to report him to the diocese.
After attending a Saint Patrick’s Day party in 1991 at the home of some of her parent’s friends where Hart was not only in attendance but was accompanied by a young teenager that he had brought from Wyoming, McClernon finally snapped.
When Hart’s mother, who was also attending that same party, told McClernon’s sister Patty that she was “so proud that Hart never traveled without a young boy,” she knew that she was morally obligated to speak up and she made her first call to the diocese a few weeks later.
“Right away, their first question to us was ‘what did we want?’” McClernon told The “We said what we have always said, that we didn’t want anything like this to ever happen to another child.”
Eventually the vicar general of the diocese suggested that he meet with the entire family, which convened at the art supply store owned by Mike.
They were all there – Darrel and Mike, both of whom had suffered their own abuse at the hands of Hart- Kathy, and Susie, who had seen the priest who had befriended their family then destroy it – expecting a pastoral encounter.
When the vicar general showed up with a lawyer, the family recalls being both surprised and offended.
The Hunter family once more recounted their history with Hart – a man who had gone from being a regular around their dinner table to the man who had destroyed the lives of many of those who once gathered around him.
“What do you want?” they were asked again, with the implication being financial compensation.
Reflecting on the damage that Reardon and O’Brien had brought to their community – and with the knowledge that some 600 miles away, Hart remained a free man – Darrel remembers that his response was simple.
“I think the Church needs to wash some feet,” he told them.