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4 Priests Face New Abuse Charges

Times Staff Writer

Four of 10 priests who escaped sexual abuse charges in Los Angeles County last summer after a U.S. Supreme Court decision are facing new charges of sexual abuse.

One former priest faces life in prison in Texas if convicted, two more are awaiting sentencing, and the fourth is awaiting trial on new charges.

“One by one, these guys are going down,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. William Hodgman. “If they struck once, they tend to strike again.”

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1994 California law allowing the retroactive prosecution of decades-old child sex crimes. But the state attorney general’s office has concluded that crimes that occurred after Jan. 1, 1988, are still prosecutable.

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* Michael Wempe faces trial on allegations that he sexually abused a boy in his hospital chaplain’s office as recently as 1995. Earlier molestation charges against Wempe were dropped last summer. He was forced to retire from the ministry in 2002.

* John Anthony Salazar was charged with sexually assaulting an 18-year-old in a Texas hotel room last September, six months after charges were dismissed against him for molesting two boys in the 1980s at an Eastside Los Angeles parish. Salazar, who was working as a priest at the time of the alleged assault, has since been removed from the ministry.

* Lawrence Lovell, who has been removed from the priesthood, is awaiting sentencing in Prescott, Ariz., for molesting a 13-year-old boy there in the late 1970s. Charges that Lovell abused four altar boys at the San Gabriel Mission from 1980 to 1984 were dropped last year after the high court decision.

* Carlos Rene Rodriguez faces 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting two boys at a Santa Paula parish from 1988 to 1993. Rodriguez was arrested in December, five months after charges that he molested a Los Angeles altar boy in the 1980s were dismissed. He has been removed from the ministry.

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Hodgman, the L.A. County prosecutor, said his office is continuing to pursue charges against the 10 priests.

“We haven’t finished yet in Los Angeles,” he said. “I can say, we expect to charge some of these guys again. It’s far from over.”

On Wednesday, the 64-year-old Wempe was ordered to stand trial for allegedly molesting a boy, now age 24, as recently as 1995 -- a year within the new window of prosecution.

The alleged victim came forward last fall after publicity over the dismissal of charges against Wempe that he molested two brothers in the 1970s -- crimes too old to prosecute under the high court ruling.

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Wempe is charged with molesting the boy between 1990 and 1995 in his car and chaplain’s office at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was assigned there by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony after the archdiocese learned he had molested other boys in the 1980s and sent him for therapy.

Wempe has been a particularly troublesome case for the archdiocese. Mahony has said that he erred in reassigning Wempe instead of forcing him to resign. Wempe, now accused of molesting 13 youths, was forced to retire in 2002 as the priest scandal escalated.

Leonard Levine, Wempe’s attorney, insists that the accuser is trying to avenge his brothers.

In Texas, the stakes are high for Salazar if he is convicted of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old Amarillo college student. Salazar was previously imprisoned on a California conviction for child abuse.

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“Under Texas law, because he has a prior conviction for a sex crime in California, it’s a life sentence here,” said Howard Blackmon, a Dallas County assistant district attorney.

Salazar, 48, was convicted in 1987 of molesting two boys, ages 13 and 14, in his living quarters at St. Lucy Church in Los Angeles. A registered sex offender, he served nearly three years of a six-year prison sentence.

After he was assigned to a church-run New Mexico treatment facility for sexually abusive priests, he was hired by the Diocese of Amarillo in Texas in 1991, officials said.

Salazar was a parish priest at the Church of the Holy Spirit in Tulia, Texas, until April 2002 when he was forced out of the ministry by Bishop John Yanta. The diocese cut off financial assistance for him in September after the latest allegations, said Cathy Lexa, diocese spokeswoman.

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Blackmon said it was in Tulia that Salazar met the man he allegedly assaulted Sept. 21 as they stayed at the Days Inn in Irving, Texas, for a wedding. The assault allegedly occurred about 2:30 a.m. after the man, feeling sick, was helped to his room by Salazar. The man reported it the next day to the Amarillo Diocese, which contacted police

Hospital tests conducted after the assault supported the man’s allegation, Blackmon said

Salazar is being held at the Dallas County jail in lieu of $500,000 bail. His attorney has denied the charges.

Lovell was convicted of molesting a boy in the San Gabriel Mission in 1986 and subsequently left the ministry. New charges that Lovell abused four additional altar boys at the San Gabriel Mission from 1980 to 1984 were dropped last year after the Supreme Court decision.

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He pleaded guilty recently to molesting a boy in Prescott, Ariz., in 1985 and is awaiting sentencing.

A Maricopa County grand jury indicted him last month for fondling an altar boy at Sacred Heart parish in Phoenix from July 1984 to May 1985, said Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the county district attorney.

Lovell faces a prison term of five to 15 years at sentencing, according to the plea.

In Ventura County, Carlos Rodriguez, 48, pleaded guilty to molesting two boys while serving at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Santa Paula from 1988 to 1993. According to his attorney, James Farley, he decided to plead guilty to spare the victims from testifying.

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