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Priest Sued by Brothers Is Arrested on Suspicion of Child Molestation

Retired clergyman is to be charged with abusing five children in the 1970s and '80s. Mahony has conceded that he mishandled case.

June 20, 2003|Richard winton | Times Staff Writer

Michael Wempe, a now-retired priest whom Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said he erred in transferring after accusations of sexual abuse, was arrested Thursday on suspicion of child molestation.

The arrest of Wempe near his Seal Beach retirement home took place as the clergy sexual abuse crisis dominated the opening day of the annual conference of Roman Catholic bishops in St. Louis. Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies arrested Wempe as he was on his way to play golf.

"I hope the news gets to Mahony and someone shoves a microphone in his face and asks what he thinks about his friend Michael Wempe being taken in, someone who he has hidden all these years," said Lee Bashforth, a Newport Beach financial advisor who alleged he was molested as a boy for eight years by Wempe.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said multiple charges would be filed against Wempe alleging that he molested five children between the ages of 7 and 16 from 1977 to 1986. Bail was set at $2 million

"Some cases do stand out, and Father Wempe's is one of them," Cooley said. "This is an egregious case with allegations of sexual abuse in three counties. Despite archdiocese stonewalling, we were able to bring him to justice."

Another retired Los Angeles priest, Titian A. Miani, 76, was arrested Thursday on suspicion of molesting two young girls. Another, Matthew Michael Sprouffske, was ordered Thursday to stand trial for molestation.

Eight other priests or former priests in the archdiocese have been charged with sexually abusing minors. Prosecutors said they expect to charge another 10.

Wempe's attorney, Leonard Levine, said that his client intends to plead not guilty "and is very hopeful that when all the facts come out, he will be exonerated."

Wempe, 63, was among seven priests Mahony forced into retirement last year as the sex abuse scandal escalated and the cardinal retroactively applied a zero-tolerance policy for abusers in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, the largest in the United States. Wempe was forced from the ministry and retired as chaplain of Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was living at a nearby parish house attached to a school south of Hancock Park.

Mahony has said he knew since 1987 or 1988 of allegations against Wempe. Mahony told The Times last April that, in retrospect, he should have forced Wempe to resign immediately after hearing of the sexual abuse allegations.

He said he should have never assigned Wempe to Cedars in 1988 without informing hospital officials that he had removed the priest from his parish and ordered him to a New Mexico treatment facility for evaluation and counseling.

Mahony insisted that experts had told him that Wempe could be trusted to work in a place without access to children. The cardinal said he did not know the hospital had a pediatrics unit.

Mahony did not report Wempe's abuse allegations to police until last year. He told The Times that he thought a therapist who saw Wempe had reported it earlier. None of the charges Cooley said he would file Monday involve Wempe's period at Cedars, officials said.

"We have known about the investigation for over a year and cooperated throughout," said Donald Steier, another attorney for Wempe. "I am pleased to say at least they didn't arrest him in front of his aged and ill mother."

Steier said Wempe would have surrendered if asked, and added that the $2-million bail was "ridiculous."

Officials in San Diego and Ventura counties, where some of the alleged crimes were committed, agreed to Wempe's prosecution in Los Angeles, Cooley said.

Cooley said Wempe's arrest would not have been possible without a new law that froze the statute of limitations in many older abuse cases. Cooley and other prosecutors lobbied for the change after the archdiocese fought subpoenas for church records.

Wempe's church files were among those demanded by a Los Angeles County Grand Jury last year. The church has fought release to prosecutors of documents reflecting communications between the cardinal and priests, claiming that release of the papers would infringe on the church's free exercise of religion. The dispute is pending before a judge

"If they'd fully cooperated on this case, Wempe would have been filed a lot sooner," said Cooley, who repeated his call to Mahony to give up the records.

Archdiocesan officials insisted that they only sought to protect rights of the church and priests.

"The charge of stonewalling is preposterous," said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese. "The district attorney knows fully well the privacy laws of California."

Wempe was ordained in 1966 and then assigned to an Inglewood-area parish. In 1974, he was assigned to St. Jude parish in Westlake Village, where two brothers alleged in a lawsuit filed last April that Wempe began to molest them and continued to abuse them despite transfers to several other parishes.

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