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Priest Gets 3 Years in Molestation

Michael Wempe's case, the first major trial in the L.A. Archdiocese's sex abuse scandal, ends as settlement talks with hundreds continue.

May 06, 2006|Jessica Garrison and Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writers

A pedophile priest whom Cardinal Roger M. Mahony returned to the ministry after learning of his interest in children was sentenced to three years in prison Friday, bringing to a close Los Angeles' first high-profile trial since the church's abuse scandal exploded four years ago.

Father Michael Edwin Wempe, 66, was led into court in handcuffs and sat expressionless in his brown county jail jumpsuit as Judge Curtis B. Rappe told him he would have to register as a sex offender for life because of his conviction for molesting a 16-year-old boy.

The retired priest agreed not to appeal or seek a new trial. In exchange, the district attorney's office will not retry him on four other counts of molestation that his jury was unable to decide.

He was given the maximum sentence, but has already served about 600 days and so will be in prison for only about a year more -- a sentence that some of his victims said was far too short.

Wempe has admitted to sexually abusing 13 boys during his 36-year career in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, but he could be tried only for molesting a single boy because the other crimes were too old. In the current case, he had denied abusing the younger brother of two men he had acknowledged molesting as youths.

"At long last, you will be introduced to some measure of justice," the older brother of the victim in this case told Wempe during the sentencing hearing. He and other victims who testified also had harsh words for the archdiocese and Mahony.

"If the archdiocese had done the right thing ... I would have been spared years of despondency," he added. "Because of this, they bear as much responsibility for your crimes as you do."

Wempe's hair and beard were scruffy and he appeared much thinner than during his February trial. In the probation report submitted during sentencing, officials noted that the retired priest is a diabetic who had open heart surgery in 1999 and takes daily medication. The report also said Wempe has been taking Prozac for three years "to calm his nerves."

Wempe did not testify at his trial, but in his probation report, officers wrote that he had said "this case has not only hurt him, but it has hurt the priesthood."

"He related that he does not want to hurt the priesthood and he does not want to hurt the church," the report said.

The trial focused renewed attention on the cardinal's handling of molesting priests. Mahony sent Wempe to therapy in 1987 after doubts arose about his questionable behavior, but allowed him to remain a priest until 2002 without warning parishioners. The therapy came more than 20 years after Wempe was ordained and more than 15 years after his first admitted victims entered his life.

Archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg said Friday the church hoped "that this conviction and sentencing brings some measure of healing to his victims".

He added that the "archdiocese has expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness for mistakes it made in dealing with Father Wempe."

Wempe's trial comes as attorneys for the archdiocese are in settlement talks with more than 560 people suing the church for failing to protect them from abuse by priests.

Such a settlement probably would reach into the hundreds of millions of dollars and break records.

The case also marked the first time that victims of a serial abuser came into open court to testify. Prosecutors had filed cases against nearly a dozen Los Angeles priests in 2003, but they were dismissed when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law that had lifted the statute of limitations for child abuse prosecutions.

On Friday, Wempe's attorney, Leonard Levine, said the retired priest would make no statement of remorse or address the court in any way because of civil litigation pending against him.

Outside the courtroom, Levine again denied that the priest had committed the crime for which he was convicted.

"Since 1986, we believe Michael has not molested any individuals. There have been no allegations except for the one person who came forward. We believe the evidence was and is there to dispute that allegation, but we accept the jury's verdict and the sentence and will move on."

But Wempe's victims said the sentence was far too lenient given the pain he has caused.

"I am here today to tell you how one man -- Michael Wempe -- has damaged ... our family as a whole," testified the mother of two of Wempe's victims. She recalled how he entered their lives the year her husband died and then took advantage of her sons.

Turning to Wempe, she said: "You have given so much grief and misery to us, and we are only one family."

Wempe sat expressionless and did not make eye contact with any of the speakers. But his sister, who faithfully sat through the trial, got up and left the courtroom at that point.

Prosecutor Todd Hicks said he did not know where Wempe would serve his time. That determination will be made in the next few weeks by the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

In Massachusetts, defrocked pedophile priest John Geoghan -- despite being in protective custody -- was murdered in prison by an inmate who said he had been abused as a child.

After serving his time, Wempe's probation report says, he plans to return to his condominium in Seal Beach where he cares for his aging mother. He still has a $1,500 monthly pension from the church.

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