Prosecutor: Priest Chose Victims Carefully for Molestation
By Linda Deutsch
The Associated Press, carried in Monterey County Herald
January 24, 2006
LOS ANGELES - The priest chose his molestation victims carefully - youngsters from poor, dysfunctional families, groups of brothers so deprived of attention and material things that they could be easily manipulated, a prosecutor said.
The boys were drawn to Michael Wempe, the "hip" priest who wore his hair long, rode a motorcycle and gave such dynamic sermons that people followed him from parish to parish to hear him speak, Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks told a jury Monday in opening statements at the former Catholic priest's trial.
But he added, "The defendant had a dark side. 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 dispute in his opening statement accusations that the ex-priest might have abused 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 the allegations brought in the case were fabricated by a man seeking to punish the priest for past transgressions against the man's brothers.
One of the early victims, identified in court as Jack F., the first to take the witness stand, spoke of the lure of "Father Mike" who gave him gifts and treated him to camping expeditions and motorcycle trips.
"I came from a very poor family," the witness said. "He gave me a debit card. I could spend $20 a day out of it ... He bought me a car."
And the priest molested him repeatedly, he said.
"I knew it was wrong. I didn't do anything to stop it," said the now 40-year-old man. "I was getting treated special and I didn't want to interrupt it."
Now, he said, he agonizes over it.
"As an adult, when I think of it, it was like I prostituted myself," he said. "I'm disgusted."
He said Wempe's abuse led him to drop out of high school, leave the church and turn to alcohol and drugs. The man 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."
Wempe was 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.
Another of the early victims, identified as John C., began his testimony before court recessed Monday, saying Wempe began molesting him when he was 7-years-old.
The men who are testifying are among those suing the Los Angeles Catholic Archdiocese as the result of the allegations against Wempe.
Hicks gave jurors a portrait of Wempe as a young priest.
"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 young brothers, Wempe would get himself invited to their home and take them on 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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