Prosecutor: Child Molest Victims Were Drawn to Charismatic LA Priest

By Linda Deutsch
The Associated Press, carried in San Francisco Chronicle [Los Angeles CA]
January 23, 2006

Michael Wempe was the "hip" priest who wore his hair long, rode a motorcycle and gave such dynamic sermons that young people were drawn to him, and he used that magnetism to molest more than a dozen boys, a jury was told Monday during opening statements in the former Catholic priest's sex abuse trial.

"The defendant had a dark side," said Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks. "He wanted to touch boys and enjoy it. ... His lifestyle was preach on Sunday, molest Monday through Friday and pray on Saturday."

Wempe's attorney, Leonard Levine, did not deny in his opening statement that the ex-priest was a child molester who abused numerous boys over a 15-year period beginning in 1972. But he added that Wempe is not guilty of the crime with which he is charged, molesting another boy in the 1990s.

He said those allegations were fabricated by a man seeking to punish the priest for past transgressions against the man's brothers.

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.

Three months after that ruling another man came forward to say he had been molested by Wempe in the 1990s, and those are the charges the former priest now faces.

Eight of the men who said they were earlier victims of Wempe are expected to testify, and the first of them took the witness stand Monday. He said Wempe's abuse led him to drop out of high school, leave the church and turn at one point to alcohol and drugs. The man, identified only as Jack F., said he still distrusts priests.

"Every time I look at a priest I think, 'What kind of story does that guy have,'" he testified. "I have no faith in the church anymore."

The witness said he was drawn to the charismatic Wempe who led him to think he was special.

"He bought me clothes and things," he said. "I ate good when I was at the rectory and he bought me a car. He gave me a lot of attention.

"He pretty much gave me anything that I wanted. He made me feel special. He would tell me that he loved me," said the man, who is one of several people suing the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese as the result of the allegations against Wempe.

Earlier, Hicks painted a picture of a priest who used his charisma to prey on children, particularly those from dysfunctional families.

"He was young. He seemed cool and hip," Hicks said of Wempe. "He wore his hair long and he rode a motorcycle. ... He was a priest but he seemed more like a regular guy."

Hicks said that after targeting his victims, usually a pair of young brothers, Wempe would get himself invited to their home and take them on camping trips, motorcycle rides and other expeditions. When they were old enough, he would teach them to drive.

"Then the touching would begin," he said as Wempe, 66, sat expressionless.

When the boys got older, Hicks said, Wempe would discard them.

"Once you were too old, he would exit your life and you'd never see him again," the prosecutor said.

Levine acknowledged what Wempe did in the 1970s and '80s would be offensive to "the decency of any human being."

"If this case was about that it would be an entirely different matter. But it is not," the defense attorney said.


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