Jury: Former LA Priest Guilty of One Count of Child Molestation
By Linda Deutsch
The Associated Press, carried in The Press-Enterprise
February 22, 2006
Retired Roman Catholic priest and admitted molester Michael Wempe was found guilty Wednesday of one count of child molestation after an emotionally wrenching trial that saw grown men testifying about their childhood abuse.
Only one victim was named in the current case and jurors were unable to reach verdicts on four counts, so a mistrial was declared on those.
Wempe, 66, who was immediately taken into custody, agreed to waive sentencing until the district attorney can decide whether to seek a retrial on the undecided counts.
He faces a sentence of 16 months to three years on the single count. He has already served a year in prison, so that time would be deducted. One of his attorneys said he was diabetic and had a heart condition, so likely would serve his time in a medical unit.
The credibility of the victim, Jayson B., was attacked by the defense and his testimony was short on details and dates. During deliberations, jurors sent the judge many questions asking for more evidence and expressed skepticism about some of the acts described by the victim.
"I hope this brings some closure to the people involved," said Donald Steier, one of Wempe's attorneys.
Wempe's lawyers acknowledged that the priest molested 13 boys in the 1970s and 1980s, but said he went into church-ordered treatment and returned a changed man. Attorneys maintained he never molested anyone after that.
Wempe was spared trial on charges from the '70s and '80s when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the statute of limitations on the crimes, but he did spend a year in jail before that ruling was issued.
Jayson B., the brother of two earlier victims, alleged he was abused from 1990 to 1995 when Wempe was a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.
"The prosecution's case was based on passion, prejudice and emotion for what happened 20 to 30 years ago," Wempe attorney Leonard Levine said. He said he believes Jayson B. was attempting to obtain retribution against the priest for molestation of his brothers.
Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks, who described Wempe as a "hip" priest who wore his hair long, rode a motorcycle and gave such dynamic sermons that young people and their parents were drawn to him, said he was pleased with the verdict and Jayson was elated.
"I'm always happy when victims have their day in court," he said. He denied trying to appeal to the jury's emotions with testimony from eight long-ago victims, saying their testimony was used merely to show a pattern of behavior by Wempe.
Jailing a molester is not vengeance, it is prudent, said Joelle Casteix, southwestern regional director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "We see it as crucial, if more pain is to be avoided. It's the only way to ensure that predators like Wempe don't rape others."
As for the importance of the case, Hicks said, "It sends a message to the archdiocese regarding this defendant. They certainly mishandled this defendant."
The Archdiocese of Los Angeles released a statement after the verdict. "Father Michael Wempe's conviction cannot restore the trust and innocence stolen from his victims, but hopefully this verdict may provide them some measure of justice and comfort."
Casteix said SNAP members hope "Wempe will now search his conscience and disclose to the police, prosecutors and the public what he knows about Cardinal Roger Mahony and church officials' cover-ups of sex crimes in the church."
Hicks said he believes Wempe is capable of committing similar crimes again. "The defendant, given the opportunity, will molest again," he said. "The defendant is somebody who has not learned."
Jayson B. and his older brother were in the front row of the courtroom. Beyond clenched jaws, they showed no reaction when the verdict was read.
Jurors told the judge there was no chance of breaking their deadlock on four counts.
On two lewd conduct charges, the jury was split seven guilty, five not guilty. On a third lewd conduct charge, it was 11 not guilty, 1 guilty. On a sexual abuse act, jurors said two were undecided, three voted not guilty and seven voted guilty.
"This was a very thoughtful, very considerate jury," Superior Court Judge Curtis Rappe said.
The only verdict jurors reached involved an allegation of oral copulation committed in a car on an unspecified date between 1993 and 1995 at a location near the boy's home.
The defense attacked Jayson's descriptions of the car and the chaplain's office. The accuser said he vividly recalled the priest driving a purple car from 1991 to 1995, but testimony from a car leasing agent showed the priest did not lease that car until 1995.
Jurors asked for that testimony to be re-read and then agreed on the only charge that mentioned 1995.
The trial stretched over four weeks and played out against the backdrop of an ongoing scandal in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
It was the testimony of the older victims that rocked the courtroom.
Some of them cried as they told of abuse which damaged them for life, leading to drug addiction, alcoholism and dropping out of school.
Wempe, seated across the courtroom, cried with them.
"This guy is so sick," snapped one victim. Asked how he knew the priest, the 39-year-old man replied, "From a nightmare."
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