In a statement read at all Catholic Masses on Sunday in Wyoming, the state’s highest clergyman apologized to victims of priest abuse and provided details to his statewide flock about the allegations facing one of his predecessors.
“The abuse crisis in the Church has been devastating,” Bishop Steven Biegler wrote in his letter, which was also placed in all bulletins Sunday. “As a Diocese, we have made a commitment to protect and heal: to protect the vulnerable from sexual abuse and to heal victims and their families.”
The statement came less than a week after the Diocese of Cheyenne announced that an independent investigation had concluded that former Bishop Joseph Hart had sexually abused two Wyoming boys. He first faced allegations here in 2002, the year after he retired. In an investigation that same year, the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office said that allegation had no merit.
The diocese became aware of Hart’s second alleged victim sometime after December 2017, when it hired a private investigator to look into the allegations. That investigator “acquired new substantial evidence,” according to the diocese’s statement. Last week, a church official declined to elaborate on what evidence that investigator had gathered.
Hart had previously faced allegations in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was a priest for 20 years before moving to Casper in 1976. He served for two years there before moving to Cheyenne – where he currently resides in retirement – and becoming bishop. Hart has denied all allegations, both in Missouri and Wyoming. He did so again last week.
In his letter to Wyoming Catholics, Biegler calls the accusations against Hart “credible and substantiated.” He has said he learned of the allegations last summer.
“Some of you have personally experienced the trauma of sexual abuse by the clergy,” he wrote. “To any survivors, family members and friends, I offer sincere apologies. I am praying for you and will do whatever I can to foster healing.”
In the 2002 police report sent to then-Natrona County District Attorney Kevin Meenan, Lt. Jeff Schulz wrote there was “no evidence to support the allegations.” He recommended the case be closed.
The report is heavily redacted and only mentions Hart by name once, though it refers to “the bishop” repeatedly. The report was obtained by a Star-Tribune request for the 2002 Hart police report.
Schulz wrote that in May 2002, he spoke with a man who said he was called into a bedroom in the 1970s “for confession,” when he was 13 or 14 years old and living in Cheyenne. The suspect’s name is redacted, but he allegedly asked the boy if he had any impure thoughts.
When the teen said he hadn’t, the man “insisted that he had” and allegedly told the boy to masturbate. The accuser told Schulz he was not touched by the man, nor did he touch the alleged suspect.
Schulz wrote in the police report that he spoke with “the bishop,” who cooperated and denied the allegations. In two listed interviews with police, the suspect was accompanied by Jack Speight, who served as Hart’s attorney throughout the 2002 investigation.
The lieutenant said he repeatedly asked the alleged victim during the next month to write a full, detailed statement. Throughout May and June, the victim allegedly told Schulz he would work on the statement but apparently never sent anything to police.
In his initial interview with Schulz, the accuser said he thought the incident in the bedroom happened in 1976 or 1977, “shortly after (redacted) had moved to Cheyenne” and the alleged victim was working around the man’s house. Hart was in Casper until 1978, when he moved to Cheyenne and became bishop.
Last week, Biegler, the diocese’s current bishop, said Meenan’s investigation into the allegations was “flawed” and that the allegations were credible. In a follow-up interview, the diocese’s vicar general, the Rev. Carl Gallinger, said the victim’s statement was evidence of abuse, so District Attorney Meenan – and the Cheyenne Police Department before him – were incorrect when they said that there was “no evidence” to support the allegations.
The diocese’s investigation – which was then examined by Biegler and a diocese review board and concurred that Hart abused the boys – has been forwarded to both religious and legal authorities. The diocese wrote that the Cheyenne police has opened an investigation, though a police spokesmen declined to confirm or deny authorities were looking into it, citing Wyoming statute.
The diocese also sent the report to the Vatican to “determine whether this new evidence is sufficient for disciplinary action against Bishop Hart,” Biegler wrote in his letter to Wyoming congregations. He also said that Hart is restricted from publicly participating in liturgical services everywhere, not just in Wyoming.
The Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph previously settled at least two lawsuits – with six accusers – related to allegations against Hart, an attorney who represented those victims told the Star-Tribune. One of those accusers was from Wyoming, the attorney, Rebecca Randles, said, and Hart was alleged to have abused boys on trips to and from Wyoming.
While the 2002 police report touches on trips to Kansas City, it mentions only that the suspect would allegedly ask the alleged victim to repeatedly change swimsuits. The suspect, whose name is redacted but said in his interview that he became bishop in 1978, denied that allegation, according to the report.