NEW YORK — Cheyenne’s police department is recommending that charges be brought against a member of the Wyoming Catholic clergy and another person “seeking membership” in the clergy of abuse during the 1970s and 1980s.
While state law prevents the suspects from being identified, a press release on Wednesday said the investigation “stems from a case initiated in 2002 that was reopened in 2018 when new information was produced and provided to the Cheyenne Police Department by an independent investigation conducted by the Wyoming Diocese of the Catholic Church.”
The subject of that 2002 investigation centered around Bishop Joseph Hart, who was bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 until his retirement in 2001.
Bishop Steven Biegler announced in 2018 that the diocese had completed a new investigation into Hart and found the allegations against him to be credible.
In June 2019, the Vatican confirmed that Pope Francis had green-lighted a penal process against Hart whose case has been under review at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) since 2010 when it was first brought forward by then-Bishop Paul Etienne, now the archbishop of Seattle.
At age 87, Hart, who has denied allegations in both Cheyenne and Kansas City, continues to live in Wyoming. The Missouri diocese where he served has previously admitted to at least ten cases of settlements with his victims.
A statement from the Cheyenne Police Department notes that affidavits of probable cause have been filed with the Laramie County District Attorney’s Office.
“Wyoming is unique in that it does not have a statute of limitations, and therefore these crimes, which were committed in the 1970s and 1980s, can still be investigated and prosecuted,” the press release notes.
A statement released by the Catholic diocese refrained from commenting on the identity of the individuals in order to “respect the judicial process.”
“Since the CPD did not communicate with the Diocese regarding the rationale for such a description, we are not sure of their intent. In our estimation, the second person was likely an adult “altar server” at the time of the alleged crime. If so, that would make him a lay man. However, it will be necessary for the CPD to clarify their statement with the public,” the release stated.
“I commend all the victims who have come forward to report sexual abuse to the police or the Diocese of Cheyenne. Thank you for your courage to step forward. If anyone has been abused, no matter how long ago, I encourage you to come forward. We will listen to you and accompany you on a journey of healing,” said Biegler in a statement.
In another statement released by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, they praised Biegler for his actions in reopening the original investigation into Hart.
“We are also very grateful to current Cheyenne Bishop Steven Biegler. When he assumed his post, Bishop Biegler reopened the investigation into his predecessor, found the allegations “credible,” and passed the information on to law enforcement. Without Bishop Biegler, today’s news would likely not have happened,” their press release stated.
“We hope that other bishops around the country learn from Bishop Biegler’s example and look for ways to assist law enforcement with investigations into clergy abuse,” the statement continued.
In addition to the criminal charges, the outcome of Hart’s Vatican trial is still pending. Should he be found guilty, he could face removal from the clerical state.
An earlier version of this story stated that the Cheyenne Police Department was recommending charges against two members of the clergy. They have since modified their statement to note the recommended charges are against “one member of the Catholic Clergy and another person who was seeking membership in the Catholic Clergy at the time of the offenses.” The article has also been updated to include statements from the diocese of Cheyenne and from SNAP.
Follow Christopher White on Twitter: @cwwhite212
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