Ex-Priest's Trial Marks New Offensive in Church Abuse Scandal

By Linda Deutsch
San Francisco Chronicle [Los Angeles CA]
January 22, 2006

Michael Wempe's attorney doesn't deny his client was a child molester in the 1970s and '80s, but he maintains the once-revered priest never committed the crime he is going on trial for — molesting a boy in the 1990s.

"These new charges were fabricated," defense attorney Leonard Levine said on the eve of Wempe's trial, which is scheduled to begin Monday with opening statements. "He's being prosecuted not for what he's charged with but for what he did 20-30 years ago."

That could prove problematic for jurors, who must put aside thoughts of what Wempe did before as they attempt to determine if he is guilty of the crime he's charged with now. Even if they are able to clearly separate in their minds the old charges from the new, said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, they "will still pause before they let a priest go when he has done so much harm to so many."

"They would be worried about the message it would send," Levenson said.

Wempe was once charged with molesting 13 boys in the 1970s and '80s, but the charges were dismissed after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law allowing retroactive prosecution of decades-old sex crimes charges involving children.

The allegations he now faces were made by a young man who came forward three months after the Supreme Court's July 2003 ruling. He is expected to testify that Wempe molested him five times.

The alleged victim, now 20, is the brother of two boys whose cases were dismissed. Levine claims his allegations are the fabrications of a young man seeking retribution for his brothers.

Wempe, 66, is the first priest from the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese to be tried after being freed by the Supreme Court ruling.

Another former priest spared charges by the 2003 ruling, Michael Stephen Baker, was arrested Thursday as he returned to Los Angeles from Thailand. Police said Baker, 58, is suspected of molesting a boy for 12 years beginning in 1984.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office was forced to dismiss multiple charges against 11 priests involving numerous victims, most of whom have since filed civil suits seeking damages for their suffering and emotional distress.

Wempe's freedom after the court decision was short lived. He was arrested after the latest alleged victim came forward and spent a year in jail before being released on $100,000 bail.

Levine conceded in court in November that his client molested 13 boys between 1977 and 1986. Eight will be allowed to testify at his current trial.

During questioning of prospective jurors, the defense attorney asked if they could put aside Wempe's past conduct and judge the former priest only on the current charges. Some said they could but many admitted they could not.

"My stomach was in such turmoil since I found out what this case was about that I could hardly sleep last night," said one woman. "I found it repulsive."

Levine asked, "Are you going to say, 'I'm presuming he's guilty and maybe you can change my mind?'"

"Yes," the prospective juror replied.

Another woman told the lawyer she kept asking herself, "My God, how can anyone do that to somebody?' So, I guess he's guilty till proven innocent."

This case also raises questions about the conduct of Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who appointed Wempe chaplain for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after sending him to therapy for allegedly indiscreet conduct with boys without specific evidence of molestation. The alleged victim says he was first molested at the hospital.

But Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks, who is prosecuting Wempe, said Mahony, the leader of the nation's largest Catholic Archdiocese, will be a peripheral figure in the case, if he is mentioned at all.

"This case has always been about this particular individual," Hicks said of Wempe.


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