Dutchess Priest Resigns after Sex-abuse Probe

By Nina Schutzman
Poughkeepsie Journal
March 21, 2016

The Rev. Peter Kihm, photo in Journal archives

A longtime Dutchess County priest has officially been removed from the clergy following an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse from decades ago, according to the Archdiocese of New York.

Allegations of sexual abuse made against Peter Kihm in 2015 have been found to be "credible" by both law enforcement and the Archdiocesan Review Board, said Bishop Dominick John Lagonegro in a letter to parishioners of the Good Shepherd Church in Rhinebeck, where Kihm last served as a priest. However, the accusations against Kihm fall out of the statute of limitations for criminal and civil complaints and the determination by the archdiocese is not a finding of guilt.

Kihm requested "a return to the lay state...will never again be able to serve as a priest here in this archdiocese or anywhere else in the world," Lagonegro said in his letter. A "return to the lay state" means that Kihm is no longer a priest.

When Kihm was suspended and removed as priest of the Good Shepherd Church in January 2015, the allegation involved a minor — one person — and "more than one occurrence" that happened about 30 years ago, according to Journal archives.

But since then, more than one person has come forward with allegations of sexual abuse against Kihm, said Joseph Zwilling, the archdiocese director of communications, on Monday. Zwilling wouldn't comment on the number of people who came forward, but said all the alleged incidents took place about 30 years ago.

READ:Suspended Dutchess priest denies decades-old sexual abuse claims

The Dutchess County District Attorney's Office, which investigated the claims with state police, "became aware of two possible victims" during the course of the investigation, said Assistant District Attorney Kristine Whelan. "Unfortunately, in both cases, the statute of limitations (five years) had long passed."

Kihm would not be criminally charged since the incidents allegedly occurred beyond the five-year statute of limitations, has said District Attorney William Grady. But it's "important that we investigate this particular type of offense... although an offender may not be able to be criminally prosecuted," victims of sexual abuse should be able to access services and support available."

The same statute of limitations applies to civil claims as well, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The statute provides that actions for civil damages for defined sexual crimes, including sexual abuse of a minor, may be brought within (five) years of the acts constituting the sexual offense."

Zwilling said he did not want to "make too many comments on the actual investigation and the process." But after the archdiocese shared news of Kihm's suspension with his former parishes and Our Lady of Lourdes High School in Poughkeepsie, where he was a faculty member from 1987 to 1992, "we did hear more allegations, and they were found to be reviewing all the material we were presented with, hearing from the individuals...and investigating the situation."

Kihm was given the option to resign voluntarily or "we would have begun steps to have him removed," Zwilling added. "Faced with the reality that the review board and law enforcement found them (allegations) to be credible, he did choose to seek laicization," or a return to the lay state, within the past month.

"The fact that he requested laicization meant that the process moved much more quickly in Rome, so it expedited his return to the lay state," Zwilling said. "Had he not sought laicization, and the diocese had to do it against his will, it could have significantly extended the time required to accomplish this."

Zwilling said Kihm is no longer living in New York.

Kihm could not be located for comment.

"We just want people to know this is not a case of somebody being free to go to another diocese... anywhere else," Zwilling said. "He is barred from that. He cannot serve as a priest, he does not have the ability to function as a priest any longer."

Before he was assigned to Good Shepherd in 2013, Kihm spent more than a decade as pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Roman Catholic Church in Poughkeepsie, according to Catholic New York.

The Rev. Douglas Crawford of Good Shepherd Church called the situation "regrettable," but said he is not at liberty to comment further.

Inside of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, an altarpiece painting — a life-sized mural of the Crucifixion — depicts Kihm as "a penitent monk kneeling below Christ," according to a 2010 blog post from the artist Keith Gunderson.

The Rev. John Antony of Our Lady of Mount Carmel would not let a Journal reporter photograph the altarpiece without permission from the archdiocese, citing the controversial nature of the situation.

Anna VanEtten, a lifelong parishioner of Mount Carmel, said she wants Kihm's likeness to be removed from the mural.

"After all of this, why should that still be there?" said VanEtten, who is also upset that Kihm, who officiated at her wedding, will also be in those special photos forever.

Before his years at Our Lady of Lourdes High School, Kihm spent three years — 1984-87 — as the parochial vicar at Saint Mary Mother of the Church in Fishkill.

Since he was ordained in 1981, Kihm has also served at churches in other counties and as administrator at the Church of St. John the Baptist in Poughkeepsie.

Over the past decades, "there have been many changes made in the policy and practice of how the Catholic Church handles this, not only in this archdiocese but across the country and around the world," Zwilling said. "The Catholic Church in the United States is now a model for how to handle accusations, and cases of abuse."

The Archdiocese of New York has agreements with all "10 District Attorney’s in the 10 counties of the Archdiocese," Zwilling said. "We first encourage anyone with an allegation concerning a priest to go immediately to law enforcement to report it. This is a serious crime, and law enforcement needs to be able to investigate."

In the months leading up to Kihm's 2015 suspension, the Archdiocese had "concerns" about possible past incidents of sexual abuse and alerted the Dutchess County District Attorney's Office, which began investigating with state police, according to Journal archives.

If an allegation is first made to the church directly, "we encourage that person to go to law enforcement, and we let them know that we will be reporting the allegation ourselves," Zwilling added. "Because this is a serious crime, we cooperate and work with the DA’s so that they are able to do a thorough investigation. Our policy also requires that a priest who has been charged with an allegation of abuse to be removed from ministry while the allegation is reviewed.

"After law enforcement concludes its work, the case goes to our archdiocesan review board, made up of lay professionals from the legal, medical, psychological, victim’s abuse and related fields, who review the entire matter in depth, before making a recommendation to the Cardinal on whether an act of abuse occurred," Zwilling said. "If even a single act of abuse is found to have occurred, that individual is never again permitted to function as a priest. All of that, by the way, is in addition to the background screening we do of all priests, religious and laity who work for the archdiocese or our parishes, including volunteers."

The archdiocese also requires Safe Environment Training, "plus age-appropriate instruction for children in our catholic schools and religious education program, so they will know the 'do’s and dont's' as well as know the warning signs of potential abuse," Zwilling added.

Nina Schutzman: , 845-451-4518, Twitter: @pojonschutzman








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