Trial Begins in Molestation Case against Retired LA Priest

By Linda Deutsch
The Associated Press, carried in San Francisco Chronicle
January 23, 2006

A prosecutor described in graphic detail Monday the molestation of numerous boys by retired Roman Catholic priest Michael Wempe but told jurors they would be asked to convict him of crimes against only one alleged victim who is now grown.

Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks said in his opening statement that most of the men who will testify repressed their memories of the abuse for many years, as did the man whose claims led to the current criminal trial.

Wempe's lawyer, however, told the jury that the claims of the most recent alleged victim were false and were fabricated to avenge the molestation of his two brothers many years earlier.

Attorney Leonard Levine said he would not contest the many molestations that Wempe committed between 1972 and 1987.

"For that there is no excuse, no explanation and no defense, and none will be offered," he said.

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

"Nothing will change the fact that molestations occurred here and throughout this country and one of the perpetrators was my client," he said as Wempe sat staring straight ahead. "The accounts you will hear from these adults, as heart-rending as they may be, will have little to do with the facts in this case."

The molestation alleged to have occurred between 1990 and 1995 did not happen, Levine said.

The trial's first witness was to be called later in the day.

The jury includes several deeply religious people who believe that priests should be held to a high moral standard because of their role as spiritual leaders.

Most said during jury selection that they found the issue of clergy child abuse disturbing but promised to be fair in judging Wempe.

"I'm always kind of saddened by these kinds of cases," said a woman juror. "I think priests are our spiritual leaders and they have a greater accountability."

The woman, who said she had been excommunicated by the Catholic Church when she married a divorced man, said she holds no hard feelings against the church.

Some other panelists, however, expressed their concern about the way the entire priest molestation issue was handled by the Los Angeles Archdiocese. That issue is likely to be a subtext of Wempe's trial, which centers on activities that followed his return to priestly duties after six months of therapy. Cardinal Roger Mahony approved his reassignment as chaplain of Cedars Sinai Hospital in spite of his history as a molester.

Wempe, 66, has pleaded not guilty to five counts of lewd conduct and molestation of a boy between 1990 and 1995. His attorney, however, acknowledged in November that Wempe did abuse 13 other boys between 1977 and 1986. Eight of them will be allowed to testify at Wempe's current trial.

Charges involving the 13 others were dismissed after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law in 2003 that allowed retroactive prosecution of decades-old sex crimes involving children.

The six men and six women of the jury promised to keep in mind that he is being tried only for charges involving the one boy in the 1990s, not for the decades-old sex crimes he has admitted.

Loyola University Law School Professor Laurie Levenson said jurors will have a tough task.

"Jurors will still pause before they let a priest go when he has done so much harm to so many," she said. "They would be worried about the message it would send."

The allegations Wempe now faces were made by a young man who came forward three months after the Supreme Court's ruling.

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

The emotional issues involved in the case — sexual abuse, children and religion — led to a complicated and probing jury selection that lasted a full week.

Many prospective jurors were dismissed when they said they could not put aside their feelings of revulsion about child molestation.

After the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office was forced to dismiss multiple charges against 11 priests involving numerous alleged victims, most of whom have since filed civil suits seeking damages for suffering and emotional distress.

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

His arraignment was scheduled in the same courthouse where Wempe's trial got under way Monday.


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