A Pennsylvania Grand Jury report found that leaders in the Roman Catholic Church there persuaded victims not to report sexual abuse and convinced law enforcement not to investigate it either. News of the cover up, which protected over 300 abusive clergy, has sparked a call for increased accountability nationwide. Catholics in Wyoming are also reckoning with allegations of clergy abuse.
In early July, Steven Biegler, Bishop of the Cheyenne Diocese, publicly announced in a press release that Joseph Hart was under investigation by the Cheyenne Police Department for child sexual abuse. Hart served as Wyoming’s bishop from 1978 until 2001. Beigler also asked that a letter be read during mass in all of Wyoming’s parishes.
He said he wanted to be transparent.
“Part of the reason for transparency is then to prevent any possible further harm, if there’s any possibility of that whatsoever,” said Biegler. “Because we know other places were not transparent, and because they were not, more people were harmed.”
A month and a half after Biegler’s announcement, the national news erupted with stories of rampant sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in Pennsylvania impacting 1,000 identifiable victims there.
Biegler is concerned that people have this impression that the large scale cover up in Pennsylvania is happening everywhere.
“It’s just not at all accurate,” he said. “More the norm is that bishops are doing their best to really do this well. That’s my experience.”
But he admitted there are some real barriers to justice.
When Biegler took his post in Wyoming a little over a year ago, he said his predecessor, Bishop Paul Etienne, told him about previous allegations against Joseph Hart, and encouraged him to continue to pursue accountability and healing.
Hart who is in his eighties and still lives in Cheyenne, had been accused of child sexual abuse in Wyoming, as well as Kansas City, where he previously served as a priest. But he’d never been criminally charged.
In late April of 2002, the Cheyenne Police Department received a report that Hart had sexually abused a teenage boy in the 1970s. Police were unable to obtain a full interview with the victim and within three months police had closed the case for lack of evidence.
That’s according to a July 30, 2002 press release from then District Attorney Kevin Meenan in which he encouraged police not to further investigate Hart. (In 2003, Meenan was forced to resign following convictions for multiple fraud charges).
Family members of the victim whose report had gone nowhere approached the diocese.
“And they said when will something be done,” Biegler said.
That’s when Bishop Etienne turned to the Vatican.
“So he actually wrote to Rome in 2010 and asked them to open an investigation. He did some activity. He tried to move this case forward,” said Biegler.
The Cheyenne Diocese put restrictions on Hart’s public activities as a clergy member, but outside of Wyoming, no further action was taken by the Catholic Church. And that’s where things stood until Biegler took over as bishop 15 months ago.
“There was no resolution of guilt or innocence, and so we felt that clarity needed to be found, for number one. And secondly, the church has a mission to protect and to heal the least.”
Sixth months into his new position, Biegler initiated an investigation and hired an investigator who was able to sit down for a longer interview with the individual who reported Hart back in 2002. With the victim's permission, a transcript of the conversation was shared with the Cheyenne Police Department, who opened a case.
“As of right now, the investigation is still ongoing and Cheyenne Police Department detectives are still working the case,” said Officer Dan Long.
Since then, two more men have come forward to report being abused by Hart as kids, and Biegler is hoping the case is gaining traction.
But he’s also gotten some push back.
“People criticize us for making a press release when the investigation [by] the civil authorities is still underway,” said Biegler.
Former Bishop Hart’s lawyer Tom Jubin issued a press release, saying, “the Diocese of Cheyenne is engaging in a smear campaign.” Jubin declined to comment further.
Following the 2002 sexual abuse scandal in Boston, portrayed in the movie “Spotlight,” all dioceses were required to set up review boards comprised of community members with experience responding to sexual abuse.
Wyoming’sboard that’s looking at the Hart case, includes educators, mental health professionals and community leaders, as well Laramie County Circuit Court Judge Antoinette Williams. The board works with the bishop to follow protocol, review allegations, and notify the public.
But Tim Lennon, president of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said justice can’t be left up to the Catholic Church and local law enforcement.
“This cannot be just, you know, a for-the-moment kind of investigation where the church controls the information,” said Lennon. “We need true independence. We need something that has power.”
SNAP is calling for Grand Jury investigations, like Pennsylvania’s, in all 50 states.
Wyoming statute gives the Attorney General and the Governor authority to convene a statewide Grand Jury, if it’s deemed to be in the public’s interest. At this time,
Governor Mead is not publicly considering a statewide grand jury investigation, nor is Attorney General Peter Michael.
Biegler said, he’s committed to seeking justice and he’s heard from survivors who’ve noticed his efforts. One woman wrote him a 5-page letter.
“She wrote to me and she said, ‘You don’t know what it means as a victim for me to hear the actions you are taking,’” said Biegler. “What victims want are someone to defend them. And so, it’s a greater good that we are doing. Not just for the particular case at hand but to speak into the culture regarding this situation.”
He hopes the investigation has benefits beyond the case against former Bishop Hart.
Correction September 10, 2018: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Bishop Steven Biegler had conducted the interview with the victim.