The Diocese of Cheyenne is compiling a list of priests, bishops and deacons who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse since 1950, Bishop Steven Biegler announced this week, signaling that the Wyoming diocese is joining a wave of public self-examinations by dioceses across the country.
“The Diocese should have a current master list so it can be confident that it has applied the current standards to all living credibly accused offenders — and especially the standards of zero tolerance — in all situations,” Biegler wrote in a column in the December issue of the Wyoming Catholic Register. He added the review will also examine how the six bishops who have served since 1950 — himself included — handled the allegations.
The diocese previously conducted a review in 2002 — the same year that former Bishop Joseph Hart was cleared of abuse allegations by the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office — of clergymen who were working in it at the time. That review “verified that no priest with a substantiated allegation of sexual abuse of a minor was serving in the public ministry in any way in the Diocese of Cheyenne,” Biegler wrote.
This latest examination comes as dioceses across the country conduct sweeping reviews of their own troubled histories with clerical sexual abuse. On Thursday, the church named 29 men accused of abuse in southern Alabama, allegations that dated back to 1950. In November, a diocese in Missouri named 33 priests and religious brothers who had been credibly accused. In August, a grand jury in Pennsylvania wrote that more than 300 Catholic priests had molested more than 1,000 children for decades.
The work on this latest review began after mid-September, when the Star-Tribune requested information regarding all credibly accused priests, all settlements and the amount paid in these agreements dating back to 1950, said Rev. Carl Gallinger, the diocese’s vicar general. He said the “commitment” to conducting the review predated the newspaper’s request. He said he had no time estimate on when the review, which will be conducted by an “independent law firm,” would be completed.
Biegler was unavailable to comment Thursday. It’s unclear how much detail will be in the list.
Accusers come forward
While the national spotlight’s focus shifted from one diocese to another as each releases reports detailing decades of abuse, much of the attention on Wyoming has been on Hart. He served as auxiliary and then full bishop in Cheyenne from 1976 to 2001, after spending 20 years as a priest in Missouri’s Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
In July, the Diocese of Cheyenne released a statement saying it had conducted an investigation into two allegations made against Hart and concluded that the former bishop “sexually abused two boys in Wyoming.” The diocese’s investigation, ordered by Biegler shortly after he assumed the office of bishop last year, also claimed that a 2002 investigation into Hart by the Natrona County District Attorney’s Office — which concluded an allegation made that year lacked evidence — was “flawed.”
In August, the diocese announced a third alleged victim of Hart had come forward, and a review board “found the allegation credible and substantiated.” Church officials forwarded this latest allegation to the Cheyenne Police Department, which was already investigating the previous allegations. Gallinger said Thursday that he was unaware of any updates from police or from officials at the Vatican, which is also investigating and could discipline Hart.
The former bishop also faced a number of allegations of sexual abuse from his time in Kansas City. He was involved in six financial settlements from a pair of lawsuits launched against the Missouri diocese.
Hart has consistently denied any wrongdoing, in Wyoming or Kansas City. Through his lawyer, he did so again in July and August.
But Hart is far from the only Wyoming priest to face allegations. Rev. John Murray, for instance, was a priest in Casper in the mid-1970s. In 2008, he and the Diocese of Cheyenne were sued by a woman alleging she had been sexually abused by Murray for roughly a year, starting in summer 1977.
The complaint for that lawsuit also alleges that Murray — who pleaded guilty to taking incident liberties with a child — told his victim he was transferred to Casper after he faced allegations at his previous post, and that he was being transferred to a Lander position because of his abuse.
There was also the high-profile allegations leveled against Rev. Anthony Jablonowski, who was accused of sexually abusing boys in the mid-1980s during bizarre rituals in the basement of a church. In a 2005 lawsuit filed against Jablonowski, the diocese, St. Anthony’s in Guernsey and a number of unnamed church officials, Jablonowski was accused of tying ropes around naked victims’ genitals, whipping them and hanging them from hooks by their wrists. Court documents show the case was settled in 2005.
Jablonowski would later plead no contest to taking indecent liberties with a child and was sentenced to 15 months to seven years in prison.
The “master list” the diocese is compiling will almost certainly include Hart, Murray and Jablonowski’s names, whose allegations were all covered in the media and whose names are easily found in publicly available court documents.
But it’s unclear what other priests, bishops and deacons will be on the list. It’s also undecided how much information on the accused clergymen the list will contain. Gallinger said those discussions are still being had.
Push for transparency
David Clohessy, who previously was the executive director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, told the Star-Tribune that the diocese should publicly release the names, photos, allegations and work history of anyone tied to the diocese — including nuns and non-clergymen — who had faced credible allegations.
He said the year that the diocese became aware of any such allegations should also be listed, so the public can see how long the church knew about any abuse.
“Some bishops just provide the names, and that’s far, far less helpful,” Clohessy said Thursday. “We also would like to see those names be posted prominently and permanently on the church’s website. Historically, bishops have done this, and when the attention wanes, they’ve quietly removed these lists.
“But there is no doubt, it is a positive step,” he said of the Cheyenne diocese’s announcement. “However belated, you know, however belatedly (the step) is taken.”
Gallinger said the list would not include the names of priests who served in Wyoming and were later accused of abuse elsewhere. That would include priests like Rev. Louis F. McKean, who served in several churches in Wyoming from 1968 to 1969 and was later accused of abusing a woman in Oregon. That diocese settled in 2003 for $750,000.
The diocese’s master list of accused abusers will also apparently not include settlements paid by the Diocese of Cheyenne. Those financial agreements include payments to the victims of Jablonowski, Murray and Rev. Charles Gormly. The latter priest was ordained in the diocese in 1935 and left nine years later. He would later serve as a priest in Minnesota, where he sexually abused several young girls in the early 1960s.
Settlements were paid to five Minnesota victims of Gormly’s, according to Gallinger and the Wyoming Catholic Register. The Cheyenne diocese contributed $500,000 to those settlements, which were completed in March.
“The Diocese of Cheyenne was held liable by the court because (Gormly) was an incardinated priest of this diocese during his lifetime; thus, the judge assigned a portion of the responsibility to our diocese,” according to an explanation of legal fees in the Wyoming Catholic Register.
The diocese further incurred more than $87,000 in legal fees related to the Gormly proceedings. Another $110,495 were racked up between July 2017 and June 2018 related to Hart. Gallinger said those costs were related to the private investigation the diocese conducted and to consultations, including with diocese attorneys, related to the investigation.
Counseling for victims
The diocese will also establish a fund to help pay for therapy for Wyoming victims of abuse, Biegler wrote. The so-called “Shalom Fund” will be filled partially through yearly donations by Biegler. He invited parishioners to also contribute to the fund.
The diocese has provided counseling to victims before. In a 2005 deposition, one of Jablonowski’s victims told attorneys for the priest and the diocese that he was receiving therapy that was paid for by the church.
In his item for the Wyoming Catholic Register, Biegler wrote that one Wyoming victim is currently receiving counseling. Gallinger declined to say whether that the person was a victim of Hart or another accused clergyman.
Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann