A Reopened Clergy Abuse Investigation Highlights Why Police Need Sexual Violence Training

Dec 21, 2018

Credit Tennessee Watson

Sixteen years ago, the Cheyenne Police Department received a report that a former Catholic Bishop had sexually abused a teenage boy in the 1970s. The lead detective told the prosecutor there was no evidence and the case was closed. Earlier this year that case was reopened and multiple victims have since come forward. This second chance at justice reflects how law enforcement attitudes toward sexual abuse are starting to change.

The 2002 investigation of former Catholic Bishop Joseph Hart didn't lead to prosecution. His innocence or guilt was not determined. But a press release from former District Attorney Kevin P. Meenan's office made it sound like law enforcement knew for sure that Hart had done no wrong. The release recommended no further investigation and that the case be closed.

Jeff Schulz was the lead detective on the case in 2002. He's no longer a police officer and referred me to the Cheyenne Police Department for comment. Because it's an ongoing investigation the department cannot discuss the particulars of the case. They were able to offer more general reflections, which I'll get to.

The victim who came forward in 2002 was willing to share his reflections. To protect his privacy he chose to go by Marty for this story; a version of his middle name. Marty said there is a lot to learn from what happened.

"The first investigation was so horribly botched through this cabal of church, state and cops," said Marty.

He grew up in Cheyenne. After high school, he left Wyoming and never came back. He now runs his own business in New York City. When he first disclosed the abuse that's where he was living. Marty said that during his first phone call with Jeff Schulz it felt like the detective had his mind made up.

"His opening introduction was to say: 'you realize what you're saying is that this pillar of the community is basically a monster, and there's nobody else saying any of this. So why is that you're coming forward?'" Marty said.

He added it felt like Schulz didn't want to hear what he had to say.

"This is someone who is cross-examining me, or probing in an accusatory way for gaps in my recollection," Marty said.

During that interview, Marty told Schulz that when he was 12 years old his dad took off. His mom was left alone with four kids to support. The Catholic Diocese gave his mom a job, noticing this was a family in need. Marty and his siblings went to Catholic school for free. Marty kept quiet when the abuse started because he didn't want to put his family in jeopardy.

When Schulz asked what month his dad left Marty said he felt nervous and embarrassed because he couldn't remember.

"To be critiqued during this line of questioning for those failures," Marty said, "it really shattered my confidence in what I was saying."

So, Marty stopped taking calls from Schulz, and let the idea of holding former Bishop Joseph Hart accountable drift away.

Fast forward 16 years to a moment when both clergy and cops are under scrutiny for sweeping sexual abuse under the rug. To help right those wrongs Catholic leaders in Wyoming urged the Cheyenne PD to take another look at Marty's case.

The department did just that reopening the case this summer. Marty vividly remembers his first conversation with Sergeant Joel Hickerson about a second go at an investigation.

"I was very blunt in my recounting the failures of the past and telling him that I did not have any expectation that his investigation was going to go much better," Marty said.

But Marty said Hickerson's response was remarkable. "He said 'the Cheyenne Police Department has come a long way in these years.'"

Hickerson has been with Cheyenne PD for 11 years. He started on patrol and is now the head detective for persons crimes division. He manages the detectives working on Marty's case, and he's a strong believer in training officers to respond to sexual violence with sensitivity.

"Historically throughout America we've had issues...not believing our victims and victim blaming was part and parcel of our belief system, our views," said Hickerson. "Over the last 10 to 15 years that has really changed on a national level and Cheyenne has followed that."

The new approach to policing that Hickerson is referencing focuses on one central concept: Officers need to start by believing victims.

"If they were anxious and worried that they have a cynical jerk detective with them, it's going to create issues. If that victim is under stress and they are feeling judged, either they're going to close down or they're going to be so stressed that they're going to forget details," Hickerson said.

He said when officers gain trust through openness and active listening they gather strong evidence. But sometimes there are details victims just can't recall.

"And we need to understand that the mind, especially in times of trauma, takes snapshots of situations," he said.

Hickerson called it a coping mechanism. We can only handle so many vivid painful memories.

For example, Marty remembers the details of the abuse, but he can't remember the exact month his dad abandoned the family.

"Because I was a 12-year old and the trauma of that means I just don't have that memory," Marty reflected.

But this detail is important to the investigation. It helps establish a timeline and explains how his family's reliance on the Catholic Church made him vulnerable to abuse. Marty said, this time, instead of facing skepticism, the detective who Hickerson assigned to the case is working with him to put the pieces together.

"The detective told me he was going to get records from the military to find out information about my father that I didn't know," said Marty. "So, the scope of what he was telling me was going to do was shocking actually. It was thorough."

The Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault's public policy director Tara Muir applauds the Cheyenne PD's efforts to seek out training and follow best practices.

"It'd be great to have it implemented statewide in Wyoming," said Muir.

Right now, it's up to each law enforcement agency to prioritize advanced sexual violence training. Muir said it's hit or miss whether that happens. That means Marty's experience in 2002 is still a possibility.

"Which is heartbreaking to hear," said Muir, "because it does feel like a crapshoot for victims."

In future reporting, Wyoming Public Radio will take a closer look at why gaps in sexual violence training exist and efforts to get more officers to start by believing.