Sex abuse investigation of pastor at Rhinebeck church continuing
By Paula Ann Mitchell
March 14, 2015
|The Church of the Good Sheperd in Rhinebeck |
RHINEBECK >> The announcement on Jan. 25 sent shockwaves through a church and its mission parish in the heart of Northern Dutchess.
That was when parishioners at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rhinebeck and St. Joseph’s in Rhinecliff learned for the first time that their pastor, the Rev. Peter Kihm, had been suspended due to an allegation of sexual abuse 30 years ago.
They were told by Bishop Dominick Lagonegro at four Masses that weekend that the accusation was “credible,” but that their pastor had denied it.
Even weeks after the news made headlines, staff and congregants at Good Shepherd remained tight-lipped about their loss.
Phone calls were abruptly terminated and a personal visit to the church ended with a woman refusing to comment and closing the door in a reporter’s face.
No doubt, the accusation made by an adult male who was a minor at the time of the alleged incident has rendered parishioners cautious and guarded.
Father Peter J. Kihm still is listed as the pastor on the church website, gsrhinebeck.com, while his whereabouts remain unknown.
The Archdiocese of New York has offered few details, except to say he has been removed to a “supervised setting.”
Meanwhile, a church spokesman said it will investigate the claim thoroughly.
“Our first priority is to let the civil process play out to see if there are any charges brought against Father Kihm,” said Joseph Zwilling, director of archdiocese communications.
An internal review also is being conducted to determine if he can resume his role, Zwilling noted.
“If he has committed a single act of abuse, he cannot return to ministry, so that portion of the process is still underway.”
While it is ongoing, Kihm is not allowed to “function or present himself as a priest,” the spokesman said.
Dutchess County District Attorney William Grady has been working with state police in Millbrook, investigating the alleged abuse for a “number of months.”
Criminal charges in the Kihm matter are not likely because the alleged incident happened beyond the state’s five-year statute of limitations, Grady has said.
In New York, civil damages for certain sex crimes, including sexual abuse of a minor, may be brought within five years of the acts constituting the sexual offense.
The district attorney would not comment further, nor would he say in recent days if others had come forward since the story broke in the media on Jan. 28.
Kihm, a Nyack native, had been the pastor at Good Shepherd since August 2013. Before that, he served as pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Poughkeepsie from 1999 to 2013 as well other leadership roles at parishes and schools throughout the Hudson Valley.
Mount Carmel parishioners like Brian McDonough said the allegation is a serious matter and should be carefully examined.
“My family and I were congregants at Our Lady of Mount Carmel from 2005 until he left, and I had always found him to be a nice man,” McDonough said in response to a Freeman reporter’s Facebook query.
“I enjoyed his sermons and was very sorry to see him go. I can only hope and pray that these allegations are false, but if they are true, then justice should be served.”
Kihm’s ouster once again shines the spotlight on the veiled sins of sex abuse in the Catholic church, a problem that the Boston Globe unmasked in 2002 with a series of investigative reports.
In the period between 1950 and 2013, U.S. bishops have reported allegations of abuse by 6,427 priests, or 5.9 percent of America’s 109,694 active priests, according to bishop-accountability.org.
An international support group known as Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said 291 priests have been publicly accused in New York.
Of those, 69 were in the Archdiocese of New York, a territory stretching from Staten Island to Ulster County, said Barbara Dorris, SNAP’s outreach director.
“Publicly accused means they have been ... criminally charged, civilly sued, publicly removed or named in a media article,” Dorris said. “So you can imagine there are probably names of predators who have been reported to diocesan officials who do not meet the criteria.”
According to a study done in 2004 by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, 81 percent of victims between 1950 and 2002 were males between the ages of 11 and 14.
Most of the priests used “grooming tactics” to entice children into complying with the abuse, the report noted, with most of it occurring at rectories or priests’ homes.
The report, commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and based on surveys, found that 56 percent of accused priests had only one victim; 27 percent had two or three victims; and more than 3 percent had 10 or more.
It further noted that “3 percent of all priests against whom allegations were made were convicted and about 2 percent received prison sentences.”
In the case of Kihm, Zwilling said archdiocese officials went out of their way to bring it to the congregation’s attention soon after the allegation was made.
“It is extraordinarily difficult for a parish, but as difficult as it is, people have told us that they want to hear bad news from us directly. They don’t want to read it in the newspaper or get it secondhand,” Zwilling said.
“Bishop Lagonegro spent time [with parishioners] after Mass during coffee hour to listen to them, to console them, to pray with them. Now, it’s about continuing to work with the parish and keeping them apprised when we have developments as we learn them and being attentive to the administrator of the parish and make sure he is properly supported to keep it unified and strong in these trying circumstances.”
While Zwilling said even one new allegation of sexual abuse is too much, and he was quick to point out that the church has made tremendous strides to stop it with comprehensive background checks and something called the Safe Environment Program, which establishes a code of conduct and training for those who have regular contact with children.
Should an allegation like the one against Kihm arise, the archdiocese has a “relationship with the district attorneys in the 10-county area,” Zwilling added.
“I think we have become a model on how to handle cases of sexual abuse [and] to try to prevent them as much as humanly possible. There’s no system that’s going to be perfect. We work to prevent it, and God forbid, if anything were to occur that comes to our attention now, we have the policies and practices in place to handle it the correct way.”
Not everyone agrees.
Attorney Joe Saunders has represented close to 100 victims of clerical abuse in the United States, and he characterizes the church as a “boys’ club” that continues to cover up for priests.
“They have made some improvements. I don’t want to lump them all together, but the Catholic church moves slowly,” Sauders said in a recent phone call to his Pinellas Park, Florida, law office.
“I’d say there are some very good bishops and priests, but the institution protects the priests over the children, and so the institution is corrupt.”
Overall, Saunders said representing victims in New York is frustrating because the state’s “restrictive” statute-of-limitations laws have one of the shortest windows in the nation, allowing abusive clergy to escape responsibility.
“My experience is that there rarely are false claims,” said the attorney, who has represented mainly male victims in their 40s, 50s and 60s.
“For the most part, when children are abused, they think nobody will believe them, and some of them believe they’ll go to hell [if they tell someone].”
He added that priests with this predilection “know how to pick vulnerable kids” and there often is more than one victim per claim.
“They pick the kid whose Mom who is working two jobs, not the Dad who is at every one of his kid’s baseball games,” Saunders said.
The tactics are the same for pedophiles outside the church and “across all spectrums,” Zwilling noted.
“If you look at statistics nationally, you’d find that the new incidents of allegations [against priests] are very rare, and below what you would find in school districts,” he said, adding that secular youth organizations also have their share of problems.
Zwilling further stressed that the majority of priests work for the good of others and should not be singled out or stereotyped.
Nonetheless, when an allegation is made, there is an overall sense of betrayal on the part of the church faithful, Zwilling said.
“It is doubly painful when a minister, priest, rabbi or religious figure is involved in something like this because not only does it damage the individuals involved and their families, but it does shake people’s faith in the church.
“But again, I would say that new incidents in the Catholic church are very rare, and when they do occur, I believe they are handled correctly. There’s no trying to handle it internally anymore. It’s brought to law enforcement, so they can handle it from a criminal point of view and the church can handle it from a parish point of view.”