Wyoming Reopens Dormant Clergy Sex Abuse Case

Sep 27, 2018
Originally published on September 29, 2018 7:00 am

Following the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report detailing decades of sexual abuse by clergy, there has been a nationwide call for action and accountability. But in many states prosecutors have run out of time to press charges.

There are just a handful of states with no statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse crimes. One of them is Wyoming, and that's given the Diocese of Cheyenne and the police there a chance to reopen an old case.

Back in 2002, a victim called the Cheyenne Police Department to report that a former bishop, Joseph Hart, had sexually abused him in the late 1970s. Hart had served as Bishop of Cheyenne from 1978 to 2001. But the victim was reluctant to do a full interview with police. After a three month investigation, the district attorney cleared Hart, saying there was no evidence.

Steven Biegler, the current Bishop of Cheyenne, says for too long those in power have controlled the conversation. When he became bishop in Wyoming a little over a year ago, he immediately launched an investigation into the unresolved allegations against retired bishop Hart.

"There was no resolution of guilt or innocence and so we felt that clarity needed to be found," said Biegler.

That investigation led to new evidence and Biegler pushed for police to reopen the case. He says his faith guides his actions.

"The church has a mission to protect and to heal the least."

That approach has met resistance from those who see Hart as a beloved figure. The 87 year old served as Bishop of Cheyenne for over 20 years and still lives in town. Hart's lawyer declined to comment for this story, and he advised his client to do the same.

Earlier allegations against Hart

Yet Wyoming isn't the only place Hart has faced allegations.

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese in Missouri has already paid out settlements to victims who say Hart abused them when he was a priest there. But he's never been criminally convicted. Biegler says a previous Cheyenne bishop even tried to get the Vatican to take action against Hart.

"He actually wrote to Rome in 2010," Biegler says. "And asked them to open an investigation."

But that investigation seemed to trail off, Biegler says, when the Vatican learned that law enforcement in Wyoming had closed the case. For years the church and the criminal justice system seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move. That is, until recently.

"Times have certainly changed. We're in a different era," says Kevin Malatesta with the Cheyenne Police Department. The case was reopened in July, and Malatesta says police are better trained to investigate adult disclosure of child sexual abuse than they were back in 2002.

"The police department certainly is listening. It appears the church here is listening as well," says Malatesta. Police says several additional reports have also come in over the course of the investigation, which is still ongoing.

"If anybody was a victim of these crimes, and either reported it and it wasn't taken seriously, or felt it wasn't taken seriously, felt it wasn't investigated . . . we want to know about it," he says.

Few states without statutes of limitations

Wyoming is one of seven states without statutes of limitations for felony and misdemeanor child sexual abuse crimes. The others are Illinois, Alabama, Delaware, West Virginia, South Carolina and Colorado. But Jeremiah Sandburg, the District Attorney for Cheyenne says even in states without time limits for prosecution, older victims still face cultural barriers to reporting and being believed.

"If it's a homicide case that went cold on us and it's now 20 or 30 years later the public doesn't seem to have any problem with us going after the murderers and saying 'now we have the evidence to get you,'" says Sandburg.

Sexual abuse cases, on the other hand, he says, are met with skepticism.

"In my mind I don't understand the difference. The difference is in one, the victim can't talk because they're dead and in the other they finally can."

For victims thinking about speaking out, current Cheyenne Bishop Steven Biegler recognizes that criminal prosecutions are a sign their voices are being heard.

"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," says Biegler.

The current bishop wants those in positions of power to use their authority to protect and defend the most vulnerable.

Copyright 2018 Wyoming Public Radio. To see more, visit Wyoming Public Radio.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Across the country, there are calls to hold clergy accountable for abuse. In many states, prosecutors have run out of time to press charges. There are a few states with no statutes of limitations for child sexual abuse. This next story is from one of them. Wyoming Public Radio's Tennessee Watson reports that authorities in Cheyenne, both the police and the church, are taking action.

TENNESSEE WATSON, BYLINE: When Bishop Steven Biegler took over his post with the Cheyenne Diocese in Wyoming a little over a year ago, he immediately launched an investigation into unresolved allegations against a retired bishop.

STEVEN BIEGLER: There was no resolution of guilt or innocence. And so we felt that clarity needed to be found if it could possibly be found.

WATSON: Back in 2002, a victim called the Cheyenne Police Department to report that Joseph Hart had sexually abused him in the late 1970s. But the victim was reluctant to do a full interview with police. Within just three months, the district attorney cleared Hart, saying there was no evidence. But Bishop Biegler says for too long, those in power have controlled the conversation. So he pushed for the police to reopen the case.

BIEGLER: The church has a mission to protect and heal the least.

WATSON: Biegler says that stance has met resistance from those who see Hart as a beloved figure. The 87-year-old served as bishop of Cheyenne for over 20 years and still lives in town. Hart's lawyer declined to comment. And he advised his client to do the same. Yet Wyoming isn't the only place Hart has faced allegations.

The Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese in Missouri has already paid out settlements to victims who say Hart abused them when he was a priest there. But he's never been criminally convicted. Biegler says a different previous Cheyenne bishop even tried to get the Vatican to take action against Hart.

BIEGLER: So he actually wrote to Rome in 2010 and asked them to open an investigation.

WATSON: But that investigation seemed to trail off, Biegler says, when the Vatican learned that law enforcement had closed the case. For years, the church and the criminal justice system seemed to be waiting for the other to make the first move until recently.

KEVIN MALATESTA: Times have certainly changed. We're in a different era.

WATSON: Kevin Malatesta with the Cheyenne Police Department says the case was reopened in July.

MALATESTA: The police department is certainly listening. It appears the church here is listening, as well.

WATSON: Malatesta says several more reports have come in, and the investigation is ongoing.

MALATESTA: If anybody was a victim of these crimes and either reported it, and it wasn't taken seriously or felt it wasn't taken seriously or felt it wasn't investigated, we want to know about it.

WATSON: Wyoming is one of seven states - including Illinois, Alabama and Colorado - where victims can come forward at any time because there are no statutes of limitations on felony or misdemeanor child sexual abuse crimes. Jeremiah Sandburg, the district attorney for Cheyenne, says even in states without time limits for prosecution, older victims still face cultural barriers.

JEREMIAH SANDBURG: If it's a homicide case that went cold on us and is now 20 or 30 years later, the public doesn't seem to have any problem with us going after the murderers and saying, now we've got the evidence to get you.

WATSON: Sandburg says sexual abuse cases, on the other hand, are met with skepticism.

SANDBURG: In my own mind, I don't understand the difference. The difference is in one, the victim can't talk because they're dead. And the other, they finally can.

WATSON: And for victims thinking about speaking out, Bishop Biegler recognizes that criminal prosecutions are a sign that their voices are being heard.

BIEGLER: It's a greater good that we're doing not just for the particular case at hand but to speak into the culture regarding this situation.

WATSON: Biegler says those in positions of power, like himself, should use their authority to protect and defend the most vulnerable. For NPR News, I'm Tennessee Watson, in Laramie, Wyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF STAN FOREBEE'S "THROUGH YOUR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.