The Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne, 2121 Capitol Ave. in Cheyenne. Wyoming Tribune Eagle/file

CHEYENNE – The Roman Catholic Diocese of Cheyenne released the names of 10 priests and one bishop they said served in Wyoming and faced substantiated accusations of sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable adults dating back to 1950.

The list was released Wednesday in the Diocese newsletter, the Wyoming Catholic Register, and was accompanied by a long letter from Bishop Steven Biegler, who said the names of the men “represents a betrayal of trust, a violation of the innocent and a human tragedy.”

In his letter, Biegler called the history of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church an “appalling sin and a reprehensible crime,” and the lack of a response from officials in the church across the world an absolute breach of their role as the mediators between God and his worshipers.

“On behalf of the church, I apologize to each victim, not only for the misconduct of those who committed sexual abuse, but also for the failure of any Church leader who did not take appropriate action after having received a report of an allegation,” Biegler said. “Finally, I pledge to do all that we can to assist with your healing and to learn from errors in our past.”

The list of abusers

The Diocese outlined its findings on incidents that occurred between 1957 and 2003 with 29 minors and one vulnerable adult reporting they had been victims of clerical sexual abuse.

The list included what Biegler said were “substantiated allegations” which had to meet one of several criteria, including collaborating testimony or evidence, a pattern of accusations or a victim’s unchanging testimony throughout interviews.

“A substantiated allegation is one which has been determined to have reasonable probability or even certainty based on a convincing level of proof,” he said. “When these elements are absent, the allegation is unconfirmed and lacks substantiation.”

Biegler said the names on the list were the result of an investigation of 303 files going back to 1950 of Catholic clergy of the Diocese of Cheyenne, including five bishops, 253 priests and 45 deacons. The Diocese had contracted with the law firm Nussbaum Speir, which has worked with other Catholic dioceses on this issue, to provide an impartial assessment of the cases.

One of those named in the letter is Bishop-Emeritus Joseph Hart, who worked in Cheyenne from 1976-2001.

Last August, the Diocese announced it had received credible evidence that Hart had abused at least two young boys while in Cheyenne. Two more survivors came forward after that announcement with credible accounts according to the Diocese.

The Cheyenne Police Department also launched an investigation into the alleged sexual abuse.

Hart has repeatedly denied the accusations, often citing a 2002 investigation by the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office that found “no evidence” of such abuse.

According to Wednesday’s newsletter, Hart faced substantiated allegations from three adolescent males. The case against Hart is also being sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith for adjudication.

Why take these steps and what’s next

Biegler said he prayed the publication of this list and a further commitment to support those survivors would signal a change in the church’s previous lack of transparency, and belief in victims when they came forward with their story.

“Transparency creates an atmosphere in which victims can breathe a sigh of relief and know that they can speak about this horrible experience,” Biegler said. “I know this personally because victims of family sexual abuse have written to me after they learned about the steps that we have taken to address sexual abuse in the Diocese.”

Biegler said he knows some in the church might question the publication of the names and ask about the idea of mercy and the ability of those who committed these acts to be able to seek forgiveness. But while there’s always the ability to seek mercy and forgiveness from God, in the church there needs to be a responsibility to protecting victims and consequences for one’s actions, he said.

“God’s mercy knows no bounds, and abusers who acknowledge their sins are readily forgiven. But there is a difference between divine forgiveness and ecclesiastical reassignment,” Biegler said. “We need to be compassionate to victims. Too often some have expressed concern for merciful treatment of clergy abusers without mention of the victims. That has to change.

“Our society needs a conversion regarding how we think about those affected by sexual abuse. We need a revolution in our thinking so that the victims are at the center of our hearts.”

On its website, the Diocese also has compiled resources for those abused on how to file a report, and statements from leaders on how the church should move forward.

To visit that site and to find a copy of the letter, visit dioceseofcheyenne.org/protect.html.

Ramsey Scott is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at 307-633-3124 or rscott@wyomingnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RamseyWyoming.

Ramsey Scott is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at 307-633-3124 or rscott@wyomingnews.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RamseyWyoming.

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