A retired Wyoming bishop has become the latest prelate embroiled in a sexual abuse scandal that is rapidly consuming the Catholic Church across the globe.
The Cheyenne Police department said it has reopened an investigation into sex abuse allegations against an unnamed church official, stemming from his time in the diocese from the 1970s through the 1990s.
The department said it had “new information” on the case and appealed on Facebook this week for new victims or witnesses to step forward.
While police did not name the “church official,” Cheyenne Bishop Steven Biegler last month announced the diocese had learned of “credible and substantiated” allegations that Bishop Emeritus Joseph Hart had sexually abused two boys.
Cheyenne police opened an investigation after the diocese reported the alleged abuse in March, Biegler said in a statement.
Hart was a bishop and auxiliary bishop in the Cheyenne diocese from 1976 to 2001, according to the statement.
Biegler’s statement said Hart has “consistently denied all allegations that he sexually abused minors.”
Hart’s lawyer, Tom Jubin, said in a statement that the decades-old allegations against his client were “not credible.”
Hart, who resides in Cheyenne, said in the statement that he would cooperate with the new investigation. He said a local district attorney had concluded years ago that the accusations had “no merit.”
“I am confident these processes will, in the end, come to a similar conclusion,” he said in July after Biegler announced the new police investigation.
But an outside investigator retained late last year concluded that the earlier district attorney’s investigation was “flawed,” Biegler said, and “substantial new evidence” suggested that Hart had sexually abused two boys in Wyoming.
PA grand jury report raises questions in other states
In Pennsylvania last week, a grand jury report cited internal documents from six Catholic dioceses showing that more than 300 “predator priests” have been credibly accused of sexually abusing more than 1,000 child victims.
The report documented decades of alleged sexual abuse by priests and a system of cover-ups by Church higher-ups.
Since the Pennsylvania grand jury report was published last week, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh said it received dozens of new allegations of abuse. Additionally, reporting hotlines set up for survivors of clerical abuse have also seen a rise.
“We believe that the real number of children whose records were lost or who were afraid ever to come forward is in the thousands,” the grand jury report said.
The grand jurors said that “almost every instance of abuse we found is too old to be prosecuted” because of the criminal statute of limitations. Pennsylvania lawmakers are considering a bill that would eliminate the time limit for prosecutions.
In the state of Wyoming, though, there is no statue of limitations for criminal prosecutions.
Two days after the Wyoming police department’s appeal for information, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley announced an independent review of allegations of sexual abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
The archdiocese has agreed to voluntarily cooperate with the review, according to Hawley.
“Victims of sexual abuse of any kind deserve to have their voices heard and Missourians deserve to know if this misconduct has occurred in their communities,” Hawley said in a statement Thursday.
“By inviting this independent review, the Archdiocese is demonstrating a willingness to be transparent and expose any potential wrongdoing.”
A history of allegations
Several men had accused Hart of sexually abusing them, beginning in 1989, when they were boys in Kansas City, Biegler said.
The sexual misconduct allegations against Hart and other priests resulted in civil claims against the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, where Hart served as a priest from 1956 to 1976. The cases ended in financial settlements in 2008 and 2014. Biegler said there were no trials or determination of guilt or innocence.
In 2002, a Wyoming man accused the bishop of sexually abusing him as a boy during “sacramental confession and on outings,” according to Biegler’s statement.
The district attorney in Casper, Wyoming, concluded at the time that there was “no evidence to support the allegations,” according to Biegler. CNN has sought comment from the former prosecutor in Casper.
But recently, a second man came forward with allegations that Hart abused him, Biegler said.
A report of the diocese’s investigation of Hart has been forwarded to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome.
“I hope that our investigation will lead to a final determination by the CDF that these sexual abuse allegations against Bishop Hart are credible and require disciplinary action,” Biegler said. “Nothing is more important than the safety of our children.”
Hart has been restricted by the diocese from celebrating public liturgical services and his name has been removed from a building at St. Joseph’s Children’s Home in Torrington, according to Biegler.
Kansas City-St. Joseph Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. said in a statement last month that the diocese would do its best to “create safe environments and accompany abuse survivors as they travel through the journey of healing.”
A worldwide scandal
The Catholic Church, including Pope Francis, has struggled to contain a widening sexual abuse scandal that stretches from Australia to the United States and South America.
In Australia, a bishop has been found guilty of covering up sexual abuse. In Chile, the Pope was forced to recant his dismissal of an abuse scandal involving a prominent priest and bishops accused of covering up his crimes.
In the United States, a prominent archbishop was removed from the powerful College of Cardinals following reports that he had molested a teenage altar boy and several others while he was rising through the church’s ranks. Meanwhile, bishops in Boston and Nebraska are investigating possible cases of sexual abuse in Catholic seminaries.
In May, all of Chile’s 31 active bishops were called to Rome for an emergency summit after a Vatican investigator looked into a clergy sex abuse scandal in that country. All 31 offered their resignations, and the Vatican eventually accepted five of them.