St. Agnes Cathedral is the seat of the Diocese of...

St. Agnes Cathedral is the seat of the Diocese of Rockville Centre. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

Suffolk County law enforcement can't investigate an allegation that a parish priest molested a minor more than 40 years ago because the statute of limitations has expired, officials said.

The Rev. Steven J. Peterson, 71, a pastor in Nassau County, agreed to step down from ministry while the allegation is investigated, the Diocese of Rockville Centre said this week.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office was informed of the allegation on Saturday, but Suffolk authorities cannot pursue an investigation because the allegation is four decades old, Sheila Kelly, a spokeswoman for the office, said Tuesday.

Under policies adopted nationwide by the Roman Catholic Church and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, "an investigation is begun when an accusation is made," said diocesan spokesman Sean Dolan. Diocesan policies call for the allegation to be reported to civil authorities, which the diocese did, he said.

Peterson could eventually be returned to ministry if he is cleared, or permanently suspended or removed from the priesthood if deemed warranted.

Peterson could not be reached for comment.

Sex abuse victims in New York generally must come forward by the time they turn 23, but many do not because they are still too traumatized, said Marci Hamilton, a University of Pennsylvania professor and child sex abuse expert.

Peterson was serving as pastor of Our Lady of Fatima Roman Catholic Church in the village of Manorhaven when he voluntarily agreed to step aside. Diocesan officials informed parishioners of the action during Masses on Palm Sunday.

Previously Peterson served at parishes in Suffolk County for decades: St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in East Islip, St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church in Babylon, and the Roman Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in Holbrook, the diocese said.

The allegation came to light through the diocese’s Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, which accepts claims from those who were allegedly sexually abused by clergy as children regardless of how long ago the misconduct occurred. If a claimant accepts payment from the diocese, he or she must agree not to sue.

The diocese is not aware of any other allegations against Peterson, Dolan said.

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