Priest's Trial on Abuse Charges Set to Begin
Cleric Who Served in County Allegedly Molested Boy in the Early, Mid-1990s
By Stephanie Hoops shoops@VenturaCountyStar.com
Ventura County Star
January 17, 2006
Win or lose, there will be ghosts to face before disgraced priest Michael Wempe's criminal trial comes to an end.
A lineup of men whom Wempe is alleged to have abused while working as a member of the Roman Catholic clergy will be on hand to take the stand as his trial gets under way in Los Angeles today.
"I'll have six men testify to events that happened to them spanning from the middle 1970s to the late 1980s," said Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks. "After those six testify, I'll have the alleged victim testify to things that happened to him in the early- to mid-1990s involving the defendant."
The alleged victim whose charges will be the focus of the proceeding is the youngest of three brothers, two of whom first came forward with claims that Wempe molested them. But the eldest two brothers' claims were dubbed too old and thrown out with several other peoples' after a 2003 opinion by the U.S. Supreme Court.
In doing so, the high court overturned a 1993 California law that extended the statute of limitations for crimes of sex-related child abuse, saying it violated defendants' due process rights. The California law effectively resurrected time-barred claims, permitting prosecutors to proceed within a year of an alleged victim's first complaint to the police, after the original limitations period expired.
When the Supreme Court spoke, the older brothers' charges were dismissed, and Wempe walked away from a Los Angeles jail a free man. Then the youngest of the three brothers came forward with new allegations that he also had been molested. The difference was, he claimed he was molested in more recent years, between 1990 and 1995, a window of time not barred by the statute.
Youth's veracity questioned
The new allegations were suspiciously convenient, said Wempe's lawyers, who plan to argue the young man is not being truthful.
"This is a false charge, and it's being based out of a family anger situation," said Wempe's Los Angeles-based attorney, Donald Steier. "I find it to be a manipulation of our judicial system by a family that felt they could take the law into their own hands."
Wempe's lawyers have admitted Wempe molested 13 boys more than 20 years ago, but they say he did not molest the alleged victim in more recent years as claimed. They realize, however, that emotions will be strong, and asking the jury to look past Wempe's history and focus on this one young man's allegations will be tough.
"You follow the law even when you don't want to," Steier said. "We're not at a cocktail party. We're talking about people's lives, and they have to take their role very seriously."
The question to be decided will be whether this young man is telling the truth or making up a story to vindicate his brothers.
The prosecution's use of testimony from a string of past victims will go to the idea that this one young man's assertion is not far-fetched because Wempe's history shows he was not above doing these things to children.
Reports first surfaced in 1987 that Wempe might have been abusing boys in the church. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles sent him for treatment in New Mexico, then in 1988, assigned him to work as chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In 2002, Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop in Los Angeles, received a victim's complaint letter, and he asked Wempe to resign.
The young man at the center of this week's trial claims he was molested in Wempe's car and his office at Cedars-SInai.
Ventura County incidents
Wempe served at four Catholic parishes in and around Ventura County between 1969 and 1987. He was arrested in 2003 for molesting five boys in incidents alleged to have happened from 1977 to 1986 in Los Angeles, Ventura and San Diego counties. Victims have claimed he sexually abused them during camping trips, car rides, motorcycle rides and extended visits to parish rectories.
Mahony has admitted he erred in transferring Wempe.
It was done, said archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg, "at a time when it was believed that therapy was thought to be effective in treating abusive behavior."
Wempe is only the latest of many priests to be tried for sexually abusing children since revelations of widespread abuse by Roman Catholic clergy surfaced in a 2002 Boston Globe expose. Wempe's trial is the first stemming from these recent scandals to involve a priest who served in Ventura County.
While these cases might be nothing new to the public, each trial still has meaning for the victims.
Trial gives victims hope
During the 15 years since Mary Grant went public with allegations that she was abused by a priest in Orange County, she's spent time working as a director with the support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. In that role, she's seen the tremendous resources the Catholic Church has at its disposal and says that getting a priest such as Wempe tried isn't easy.
"Hundreds of victims have been denied this process because church officials aided and abetted and covered up crimes by the clergy in the Catholic Church," she said. "So when we see this, it gives us some hope that justice will be done."
The trial will be watched by many.
Grant is hoping it will bring light to Mahony's involvement.
"This is one step in that direction," she said. "We believe that Cardinal Mahony should be criminally indicted for his complicity in the crimes by his priests."
Civil lawyers who've brought suits on behalf of alleged victims and are in the midst of settlement negotiations will also be watching.
"Generally, if you can get a conviction in a criminal case, that will carry over into a civil case and make it easier in a civil case," said Ronald Norman, a Newport Beach attorney who is representing more than a dozen claimants, including the alleged victim at this week's criminal trial and his brothers.
San Diego lawyer Irwin Zalkin, who has more than 50 of the civil claims, said Wempe's criminal trial will be on his radar, too.
"I think the Wempe case is going to be important in terms of getting as much out there as possible -- in terms of this is an example of what has been going on," he said. "I think anytime there's a criminal proceeding or public proceeding, it sheds more and more light on the issue, and from that standpoint, that's what we're looking for."
The trial begins at 9 a.m. today before Judge Curtis Rappe in Courtroom 103 at the Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles.
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