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In confronting sex abuse, a Wyoming bishop confronts a powerful foe: his predecessor

Updated 12:36 PM ET, Wed September 12, 2018

Cheyenne, Wyoming (CNN) - The Catholic Church is facing a reckoning today in large part due to a damning Pennsylvania grand jury investigation released last month.

But more than a year before that bombshell report dropped, another reckoning was already taking place thousands of miles away.

Joseph Hart, the retired longtime bishop of Cheyenne, is today being investigated for allegedly sexually abusing children when he was the highest ranking Catholic in the state of Wyoming, according to the diocese he has served since 1976.

Should Hart be charged, it will be the first time in US history that a bishop is prosecuted for sexual abuse. And if that happens, it will be because of the man who holds his old job.

"I take no pleasure in that at all," said Steven Biegler, the Bishop of Cheyenne. "I think we need to do what's right."

When Biegler arrived in Cheyenne last summer, he made it his first order of business to reopen the file on Hart, a revered -- even beloved -- figure across the state of Wyoming.

"I had to take the lead charge and I knew that a lot of this would fall to me in terms of how people respond."

Hart, a powerful pillar in the community for more than four decades, has been the subject of civil suits filed in Kansas City, where he served prior to coming to Cheyenne.

He was also investigated criminally in 2002 in Casper, Wyoming, but the district attorney concluded at the time that there was "no evidence to support the allegations," according to Biegler. Because the case has been reopened, state law prohibits public entities from commenting on it.

It took months of meetings and interviews with accusers, investigators and laity boards, and even going to Rome to seek the Vatican's blessing to go after one of his own.

"I went to Bishop Hart and I sat down with him in person and I said, listen, this is where we're at," Biegler said.

Hart didn't say much in reply, Biegler said. "He was disturbed, obviously," he said.

No longer a "perfect place to keep that stuff hidden"

If Biegler's pursuit of a fellow bishop wasn't extraordinary enough, the fact that a potential flashpoint of crisis for the church is developing here -- far from the East Coast and Midwest metropolitan areas that make up the country's traditionally Catholic core -- makes the Hart case even the more unexpected.

"In Wyoming, people don't talk about that stuff," said "Jimmy," a pseudonym for a former Cheyenne altar boy who has accused Hart of abuse. "It's like the '50s. Wyoming is a perfect place to keep that stuff hidden."

Jimmy vividly remembers Hart's breath reeking of cigarettes and alcohol as, he says, the bishop forced him between his knees. On the walls hung pictures of his alleged attacker smiling beside two different popes. Jimmy was 14 years old.

Hart retired in 2001 and still lives a well-to-do life in Cheyenne.

Whispers can be heard about town from the Catholic faithful who support the 87-year-old Hart, and begrudge Bishop Biegler for digging into a dark, painful past. But the only public cry in Hart's defense has been from his hired attorney, Thomas Jubin, who said Biegler "is improperly seeking to inflame public opinion against one of his predecessors for unfathomable reasons."

"Bishop Hart continues to strenuously deny any such allegations are true," Jubin wrote in a statement.

But while some in Cheyenne's Catholic community may choose to look beyond the allegations against Hart, his case presents a rare opportunity for prosecutors.

Because, unlike in heavily Catholic-populated states like New York and Pennsylvania, where the church has aggressively and successfully prevented the expansion of statute of limitation laws, Wyoming, imbued with its wild west legacy and spirit to match, presents a new frontier of justice: no statute of limitations on any criminal prosecutions.

"Something that took place in the '70s, '80s, '90s whenever it may have been, it's something that we can still take action on today," said Kevin Malatesta, a spokesman for the Cheyenne Police Department. "We can still investigate. We can still hold that person accountable."

Echoes of #MeToo

As new tips flood the Cheyenne Police Department in the wake of its reopening of its criminal investigation, a modern-day bishop who triggered the fact-finding draws parallels to another recent reckoning that has empowered victims to come forward and has allowed justice to prevail.

"There was a great trust ... to those in power, trusted to the point of fault, a systemic thing that needs to be changed," said Biegler. "I think you see the #MeToo movement, and I think you've seen it very powerfully here in the church."


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