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Jailed Priest Accused of Molesting Sees Bail Lowered

Michael Wempe will be freed if he agrees not to perform priestly duties and wears an electronic monitor. He faces 20 years on charges.

August 14, 2004|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

The only Roman Catholic priest still jailed for allegedly molesting children in Los Angeles County could be out next week if he posts a newly reduced bail and promises not to perform priestly functions while awaiting trial.

Instead of a passport, lawyers for Michael Edwin Wempe offered to surrender his clerical collar Friday.

The 64-year-old retired priest is expected to come up with the $100,000 bond within the next few days and return to the Seal Beach retirement home he shared with his ailing mother until his arrest in September.

A judge reduced Wempe's bail from $500,000, warning that if he flees, his action would be considered "virtually an admission of guilt."

Retired Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Samuel Mayerson also ordered Wempe to wear an electronic device to monitor his whereabouts.

He must stay inside his house except to see his doctors and lawyers, shop for groceries and attend Mass -- which the judge warned he could do so only as a participant, not the celebrant.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Todd Hicks, who opposed the bail reduction, said he was disappointed with the ruling.

In court, he said Wempe, who faces up to 20 years in prison, might be tempted to run based on the strength of the evidence presented against him at a weeklong preliminary hearing in February. He also said he feared the priest would abuse again.

But Wempe's lawyers, Leonard Levine and Donald Steier, successfully argued that the cleric was neither a flight risk nor a danger to the community.

Defense lawyers said he hasn't fled during a lengthy and open police investigation. Last summer, Wempe was charged with 42 counts of sexually molesting 13 boys between 1977 and 1986.

A few days later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a 1994 California law allowing retroactive prosecution involving older sex crimes against children. As a result, criminal charges against Wempe and nine other priests were dismissed.

In the current case, prosecutors allege Wempe molested a boy in his chaplain's office at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center between 1990 and 1995.

The victim did not report his allegations until earlier charges against Wempe -- involving the victim's older brother -- were dismissed.

One of the victim's brothers compared the judge's decision allowing Wempe to live in a retirement home where grandchildren come to visit their relatives to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony's decision to place Wempe in a hospital with a pediatric ward, after he was removed from his church parish amid allegations of child molestation.

Mahony forced Wempe to retire from the priesthood in 2002, and barred him from active ministry, Wempe's defense lawyers said. Yet Wempe nodded yes when Mayerson asked his lawyers Friday if he was still a priest.

Wempe is one of two retired priests facing child molestation charges in Los Angeles County. The other, Stephen Charles Hernandez, posted $240,000 bail after he was arrested in June. He faces 12 felony counts involving a 14-year-old boy he allegedly molested in 2001 and 2002 while he was counseling minors at Central Juvenile Hall, also known as Eastlake.

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