FOX 11 Investigates: Could a Wyoming priest abuse case impact NE Wisconsin Catholics?

A 2002 allegation of sexual abuse is being re-examined in the Diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Limited information at the time had police and then-Bishop of Cheyenne David Ricken not finding the accusation credible.

GREEN BAY (WLUK) - With a dark cloud hanging over the Catholic church, the Diocese of Green Bay is opening its files to an independent investigator. The diocese wants to make sure any documented allegations of abuse committed by priests have been dealt with properly over the years.

"Hopefully it will restore confidence in what we’re doing," explained Bishop David Ricken with the Diocese of Green Bay.

The diocese, including its leader Bishop David Ricken, is also paying close attention to accusations of sexual abuse resurfacing in Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Before coming to Green Bay, Ricken was Bishop of Cheyenne in 2002. He was a brand-new bishop. Among his first duties was to address an allegation of sexual abuse against his predecessor, Bishop Emeritus Joseph Hart, involving a 14-year-old boy in 1977.

Ricken spoke with Hart at the time of the accusation and found him to be innocent.

"Yes, well, what happened was, I reported right away to the civil authorities, because there had been some things on him from Kansas City, which I wasn’t privy to necessarily, except in the press, but also because it could have been true," said Ricken.

Ricken ultimately provided a pastoral letter in 2002 supporting Hart, stating: “I have confidence that Bishop Hart is telling the truth.” “He has my full support.”

Ricken says he reached out to the alleged victim but never spoke with him.

"I called the victim myself left messages. He doesn’t live in Wyoming anymore. Left messages never got a call back," said Ricken.

"That was very hard to work with because we didn’t have first-hand information but his family was very concerned about it," Ricken said.

Police investigated the second-hand claim forwarded to them by the diocese. A special prosecutor concluded the allegation had "no merit."

But just two years later, in 2004, a civil suit was filed in Missouri where Hart previously served as a priest. Three alleged victims came forward claiming they were abused by Hart years earlier. Hart denied any wrongdoing. The Diocese of Kansas City settled claims made against Hart and other priests by victims of sexual abuse in 2008. More claims were settled in 2014.

Hart maintained limited church participation as a retired Bishop. Ricken moved on to Green Bay in 2008.

But in 2017 Cheyenne welcomed a new bishop, Steven Biegler, who set out to clear the air concerning Hart.

"I went to Bishop Hart and I sat down with him in person and I said listen this is where we’re at," explained Biegler. "You know he didn’t say much he was disturbed obviously."

Biegler initiated an independent investigation of the Hart case, and this time was contact was made with the victim in the case from 2002. Under Biegler, with the new interviews, the church declared the 15-year-old allegation to be credible.

The independent report was turned over to the Cheyenne Police Department, which is now conducting a criminal investigation. Since that investigation began, two other people came forward alleging abuse by Hart when he was Bishop in Cheyenne.

One of Hart’s accusers spoke anonymously to CNN, detailing his alleged abuse.

"I remember standing on the alter as an alter boy with the bishop saying a mass, I look up and think, hey Jesus this doesn’t seem how it should be, this guy here," said the accuser.

Hart maintains his innocence, indicating in a statement this summer that he has and will continue to cooperate fully with the investigation. Hart’s attorney went one step further accusing Bishop Biegler of quote, "seeking to inflame public opinion."

Fox 11 Investigates asked Ricken, "Was it troubling for you that things kept coming up against Bishop Hart?"

"Yeah. That’s a concern but since that investigation is ongoing I don’t want to comment a whole lot about the rest of it," said Ricken.

Biegler says in addition to months of meetings with accusers and investigators, he even sought out the Vatican’s blessing to resolve questions about Hart.

"It’s obvious that some bishops did not do what needed to be done especially in regard to other Bishops," said Biegler about alleged abuse cases in the Catholic church.

"Do you think he was talking about you in part?" Fox 11 Investigates asked Ricken.

"I don’t know. I don’t know what he had in mind with that comment. Could have been. I haven’t really talked to him about that," explained Ricken.

"Do you think more could have been done back in 2002 when you had the case?" Ricken was asked.

"Well I suppose reading back you could say that, but I did what I knew to do at the time with what I knew. And that’s what I did," said Ricken.

Unlike Wisconsin, in Wyoming there is no statute of limitations, meaning crimes occurring at any time can still be prosecuted.

"Something that took place in the 70s, 80s, 90s whenever it may have been is still something we can take action on today," said Kevin Malatesta with the Cheyenne Police Department.

"I think we’re all growing and understanding the problem and trying to get to the truth regarding the situation," explained Ricken. "And thank God we had a policy to follow in the Diocese of Cheyenne at the time and that’s what I did."

Ricken says he has not been contacted by Cheyenne Police. But if they do reach out he indicates he will cooperate any way he can. Cheyenne police tell FOX 11 the investigator assigned to the case continues to follow up on leads still coming in. Police expect the case will take another couple of months to complete.

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