Saturday, May 04, 2002

Elder teacher's abuse case not disclosed to school




By Richelle Thompson rthompson@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Kiffmeyer
        At the same time the Rev. James G. Kiffmeyer was building a reputation as an excellent teacher and Catholic role model at Elder High School, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati quietly settled a complaint of sexual misconduct against the priest. But Elder principal Tom Otten didn't hear of the complaint or the four-figure settlement until Friday — five years later.

        “It sure would have helped me to know. If you know what you're dealing with, you can make the best decisions,” said Mr. Otten, also an employee of the archdiocese. “I've got to protect my kids.”

        Father Kiffmeyer, a chemistry and religion teacher at Elder since 1991, took personal leave last week after a former student alleged sexual misconduct in the late 1980s when the priest taught at Middletown's Fenwick High School. The alle gation was reported in Wednesday's Enquirer.

        Father Kiffmeyer has denied that allegation as well as the 1997 complaint that was settled, said Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the archdio cese. The priest could not be reached for comment.

        He is not one of the “fewer than five” priests Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk had previously acknowledged are still serving in the Archdio cese of Cincinnati despite substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct.

        The allegations against Father Kiffmeyer have thrust the storied, west-side Catholic school into the national priest sex abuse scandal.

        Friday was Elderfest — a five-year tradition for the students to set aside books and celebrate the end of the year. Euchre tournaments, beanbag tosses, chess matches and a faculty-student basketball game fill the day.

        Seniors pass along the torch of leadership to juniors. In years past, Father Kiffmeyer, one of the school's favorite teachers, has given a motivational speech during a special Mass.

        This year, the 972-member student body held a moment of silence to pray for the priest, his family and the accusers.

        “I think the real victim is the whole Elder community,” said Brett Renzenbrink, 17, the newly-elected student council president. He addressed his peers during Mass, telling them Father Kiffmeyer inspired him to more fully embrace Catholicism.

        “Whether the allegations are true or false, in my mind, he's an outstanding teacher and an outstanding representative of the Catholic faith,” Brett said.

        Students, teachers and administrators at Elder have rallied around the priest, known affectionately as “Father Kiff.”

        They say he was among the most respected and visible teachers at the school. The only full-time priest at the school, he served as chaplain for the sports teams, said Mass for the students and taught extra classes.

        After the latest allegation became public in The Enquirer, Mr. Otten sent a letter home with students explaining the situation. He says he did not inform parents or students earlier because personnel matters typically are confidential.

        He encouraged students to focus on their studies and to pray for all involved. Still, Mr. Otten said, most are shocked.

        “Our experience with him is as a good man who builds faith,” Mr. Otten said. “The accusation is like the puzzle piece that doesn't fit.”

        Archdiocese officials said Tuesday that the latest allegation for Father Kiffmeyer was the first. On Friday, Mr. Andriacco said he was mistaken and wasn't aware of the 1997 settlement.

        Like the other allegation, the settlement involved an 18-year-old who alleged the priest had “attempted sexual intimacy,” Mr. Andriacco said.

        Archdiocese officials Friday did not release any details of the settlement or any specific dollar figure.

        Because the accuser was not a child, the archdiocese didn't feel it had to report the complaint to law enforcement, Mr. Andriacco said.

        “Our purpose is not to resolve finally someone's guilt or innocence,” Mr. Andriacco said. “That's for legal authorities.”

        Whether the allegation would merit criminal charges is unknown — and perhaps unlikely because both accusers were adults. But Butler County Prosecutor Robin Piper said he can't prosecute either case because of the statute of limitations.

        Mr. Piper derided church leaders for their response.

        “It's this kind of spin that has prompted the public outcry,” he said. “Any profession can have people who have misdeeds ... What the outcry is about is how it's being handled. That needs to end. There needs to be accountability immediately.”

       



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