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Priest's Sex Abuse Trial to Start

Michael Edwin Wempe, a retired Catholic cleric, has admitted molesting 13 boys. He denies charges that he fondled another youngster.

January 20, 2006|Jean Guccione | Times Staff Writer

A retired Roman Catholic priest who has admitted molesting 13 boys goes on trial as early as today on charges that he abused another boy -- one he denies ever fondling.

Father Michael Edwin Wempe is one of four priests from the Los Angeles Archdiocese to be charged with child molestation in Southern California since 2003, when similar charges were dismissed against nearly a dozen Catholic clerics -- part of a sex scandal that has rocked the U.S. Catholic Church.

He is using an unusual -- and experts say risky -- defense strategy in admitting to abusing the 13 boys. His lawyer contends that the charges Wempe faces were trumped up by the younger brother of two of those victims to keep the criminal case alive.

In 1988, after he was accused of sexual misconduct with a child, Wempe was placed in therapy by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and subsequently returned to priestly duties. Eventually, 13 children accused him of abuse, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled those cases too old for criminal charges.

The new case highlights victims' claims that Mahony failed to protect them from abusive priests even after he was aware of the clerics' serious misconduct. During jury selection, several prospective jurors expressed anger with the Catholic Church's handling of accused priests.

Wempe, 66, in his current case is charged with abuse that allegedly occurred in his hospital office and car from 1990 to 1995. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all charges: three felony counts of lewd acts with a child under 14 and two felony counts of oral copulation on a minor. He is under house arrest, living with his mother at Leisure World, a Seal Beach retirement community.

As many as eight of Wempe's victims, including the brothers of his latest accuser, are expected to testify over the next three weeks about how he fondled, orally copulated and attempted to sodomize them, Deputy Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Todd Hicks said.

Jury selection began Tuesday, and opening statements could begin today.

Wempe cannot be prosecuted for abuse that occurred before 1988, under California's statute of limitations for childhood sex crimes. His lawyers, however, worry that jurors might feel compelled to punish him for old crimes even if they don't believe he is guilty of the new charges.

But the defense had little choice but to concede the earlier abuse or be buried in testimony of the other victims, said Laurie Levenson, a former prosecutor who teaches at Loyola Law School.

"By conceding it, you minimize the impact" of other victim testimony, said Dana Cole, a criminal defense lawyer.

Wempe's latest accuser, now 25, said the priest, a long-time family friend, first slipped his hand under his shorts and fondled him when, as an 11-year-old, he sat on Wempe's lap to play games on his office computer. Another time the priest allegedly fondled the boy while teaching him to drive.

The accuser testified in 2004 that he had never told anyone about the alleged molestations because he was embarrassed and ashamed.

"I changed my mind when I realized that the only thing that would ensure justice was if I got involved," he said at the preliminary hearing.

The Times generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.

Prosecutors say the testimony of other victims will show that Wempe used a "scheme" he had employed before: befriending the boy's mother and insinuating himself into her family.

But defense lawyers say that there is no independent evidence of the accuser's claims and that he got key details wrong, including the color of Wempe's car.

The new accusation is the only one alleging abuse after Wempe's treatment, they noted.

"If he is a pedophile, why aren't other people coming forward?" Wempe's lawyer, Leonard Levine, said this week. "He's being prosecuted not for what he did in this case, but for what he did 20, 30 years ago."

Levine said he did not know if Wempe would testify. The priest, he said, passed two polygraph tests -- which are inadmissible in court -- in an attempt to persuade prosecutors to drop the case.

Mahony reassigned Wempe to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in 1988, after he spent six months in a residential treatment center for predators.

A Santa Paula pastor had reported his "indiscreet conduct with young boys." A church paper said there was no report of actual molestation.

The cardinal told The Times in 2002 that he erred when he transferred Wempe to Cedars-Sinai without alerting hospital officials about the allegations. In retrospect, Mahony has said, he should have forced Wempe to resign immediately. The priest retired in 2002, when Mahony began enforcing a court-ordered "zero-tolerance" policy for abusive clergy.

More than 560 people -- including Wempe's latest accuser and his brothers -- are suing the Los Angeles Archdiocese, accusing its leaders of failing to protect them from predator priests.

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