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Chronicling Priest's Pattern of Abuse

In court, victims tell of a hip, outdoorsy Michael Wempe lavishing them with attention and trips.

February 08, 2006|Jessica Garrison and Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writers

Retired priest Michael Edwin Wempe is older now, with curled, arthritic-looking hands and watery, crystalline eyes. As he has sat in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom these last three weeks, red-faced and silently weeping, it has been difficult to see him as his victims did: as the hip, long-haired cleric on a motorcycle who, by his own admission, seduced and molested 13 boys during his 36-year career in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

But as the witnesses recounted, Wempe, now 66, had an eye for needy boys from troubled families: He invited them for dinner in the rectory, and then took them into his bed while the other priests slept. He put them on the front of his motorcycle and in his car, and then fondled them as they drove -- in one case crashing in a bloody accident. After violating them at night, he rewarded them with extra-large pieces of Communion wafers at Mass the next morning.

Four years after the clergy abuse scandal exploded across the country and in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Wempe's trial, which is expected to go to the jury this week, offers a rare picture of a serial abuser. After years of simmering scandal and secret negotiations, eight men have come into open court to confront the priest who molested them.

Their testimony highlights how, in parish after parish, the priest surrounded himself with boys -- and for years no church officials seemed to express concern or intervene. The allegations that the church did not act could prove pivotal not just to Wempe's fate, but also to the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which is facing more than 560 lawsuits charging that it failed to protect children from abusive priests.

"You would have fun, but you paid the price," testified one of Wempe's victims, who estimated that the priest molested him in the rectory 30 to 40 times, and on a motorcycle, in cars and during camping trips. "He would attack you."

As victims described monstrous acts of abuse that ruined their lives and sent them spiraling into substance abuse, Wempe's lawyer made no objection. Still, the retired priest, among the most prolific abusers in the archdiocese's molestation scandal, denies the crime for which he is on trial -- allegedly molesting the younger brother of two of his victims.

The cleric's lawyer says the accuser is making up the charges to avenge the brothers, whose abuses happened too long ago to allow prosecution of Wempe for them. The lawyer has tried to show that the accuser is wrong on key details, such as the color of the priest's car.

Wempe's defense is that he used to be a pedophile but that he was cured after Cardinal Roger M. Mahony sent him to therapy in 1987. The therapy came more than 20 years after Wempe was ordained and more than 15 years after his first admitted victims entered his life.

Court documents and testimony outline a pattern of abuse repeated many times.

Wempe was about 30 and had been an assistant pastor at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Simi Valley for two years when he met Vincent and Timothy F. As he would do again, he befriended a Catholic family with young boys. He accepted invitations to dinner and proved himself to be a delightful and charming guest.

Before long, he was treated like an honored member of the family, saying Mass in the home, offering a sympathetic ear to the boys' mother and, to her immense gratitude, taking an interest in her preteen sons, according to the prosecutors. (Vincent and Timothy F. did not testify.)

For the boys, the attention was exhilarating: Wempe was not only patient and caring, he was also one cool dude. He had a full beard, long hair and a motorcycle. And as if that weren't enough, he was devoted to camping, fishing and shooting.

In court over the last three weeks, several witnesses described how Wempe would initiate the abuse.

After gaining the parents' trust, he would invite his altar boys for motorcycle rides. With their own driver's licenses often years away, they were delighted -- even more so when Wempe said they could steer.

But inevitably, the thrill of the ride was interrupted when Wempe's hands strayed into their laps, then inside their pants.

"He would say, 'My hands are cold,' " testified Richard Kirby, who was molested by Wempe from 1976 to 1978 and became a Washington lobbyist. "It was a little weird, but I was getting to drive a motorcycle."

During camping trips and sleepovers at the rectory, meanwhile, the boys often woke in the night to feel Wempe's hands between their legs, the men testified. Other times, the priest would talk to them about the beauty of masturbation and explain that it was God's way of releasing tension.

Sitting at the defendant's table, Wempe's ruddy face sometimes turned red, then purple. Occasionally, tears dripped down his cheeks.

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