Chronicling Priest’s Pattern of Abuse
Retired priest Michael Edwin Wempe is older now, with curled, arthritic-looking hands and watery, crystalline eyes. As he has sat in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom these last three weeks, red-faced and silently weeping, it has been difficult to see him as his victims did: as the hip, long-haired cleric on a motorcycle who, by his own admission, seduced and molested 13 boys during his 36-year career in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
But as the witnesses recounted, Wempe, now 66, had an eye for needy boys from troubled families: He invited them for dinner in the rectory, and then took them into his bed while the other priests slept. He put them on the front of his motorcycle and in his car, and then fondled them as they drove -- in one case crashing in a bloody accident. After violating them at night, he rewarded them with extra-large pieces of Communion wafers at Mass the next morning.
Four years after the clergy abuse scandal exploded across the country and in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Wempe’s trial, which is expected to go to the jury this week, offers a rare picture of a serial abuser. After years of simmering scandal and secret negotiations, eight men have come into open court to confront the priest who molested them.
Their testimony highlights how, in parish after parish, the priest surrounded himself with boys -- and for years no church officials seemed to express concern or intervene. The allegations that the church did not act could prove pivotal not just to Wempe’s fate, but also to the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which is facing more than 560 lawsuits charging that it failed to protect children from abusive priests.
“You would have fun, but you paid the price,” testified one of Wempe’s victims, who estimated that the priest molested him in the rectory 30 to 40 times, and on a motorcycle, in cars and during camping trips. “He would attack you.”
As victims described monstrous acts of abuse that ruined their lives and sent them spiraling into substance abuse, Wempe’s lawyer made no objection. Still, the retired priest, among the most prolific abusers in the archdiocese’s molestation scandal, denies the crime for which he is on trial -- allegedly molesting the younger brother of two of his victims.
The cleric’s lawyer says the accuser is making up the charges to avenge the brothers, whose abuses happened too long ago to allow prosecution of Wempe for them. The lawyer has tried to show that the accuser is wrong on key details, such as the color of the priest’s car.
Wempe’s defense is that he used to be a pedophile but that he was cured after Cardinal Roger M. Mahony sent him to therapy in 1987. The therapy came more than 20 years after Wempe was ordained and more than 15 years after his first admitted victims entered his life.
Court documents and testimony outline a pattern of abuse repeated many times.
Wempe was about 30 and had been an assistant pastor at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Simi Valley for two years when he met Vincent and Timothy F. As he would do again, he befriended a Catholic family with young boys. He accepted invitations to dinner and proved himself to be a delightful and charming guest.
Before long, he was treated like an honored member of the family, saying Mass in the home, offering a sympathetic ear to the boys’ mother and, to her immense gratitude, taking an interest in her preteen sons, according to the prosecutors. (Vincent and Timothy F. did not testify.)
For the boys, the attention was exhilarating: Wempe was not only patient and caring, he was also one cool dude. He had a full beard, long hair and a motorcycle. And as if that weren’t enough, he was devoted to camping, fishing and shooting.
In court over the last three weeks, several witnesses described how Wempe would initiate the abuse.
After gaining the parents’ trust, he would invite his altar boys for motorcycle rides. With their own driver’s licenses often years away, they were delighted -- even more so when Wempe said they could steer.
But inevitably, the thrill of the ride was interrupted when Wempe’s hands strayed into their laps, then inside their pants.
“He would say, ‘My hands are cold,’ ” testified Richard Kirby, who was molested by Wempe from 1976 to 1978 and became a Washington lobbyist. “It was a little weird, but I was getting to drive a motorcycle.”
During camping trips and sleepovers at the rectory, meanwhile, the boys often woke in the night to feel Wempe’s hands between their legs, the men testified. Other times, the priest would talk to them about the beauty of masturbation and explain that it was God’s way of releasing tension.
Sitting at the defendant’s table, Wempe’s ruddy face sometimes turned red, then purple. Occasionally, tears dripped down his cheeks.
He seems to have been quite open about letting the boys sleep in the rectory; several people testified that they came and went with regularity and ate dinner there with the other priests. Still, the men testified, sometimes Wempe would tell them to keep their activities secret.
A few altar boys also testified that he had a particular way of showing his gratitude: During Mass, he would break off extra-large pieces of wafers for them.
In 1973, Wempe was transferred from St. Rose of Lima to St. Jude in nearby Westlake Village.
He continued his relationships with Vincent and Timothy F., and he began abusing at least five other boys.
Among them were Robert B., whose father was an alcoholic and whose mother welcomed Wempe into her home, and Mark and Lee B., brothers of Wempe’s current accuser. Robert B. did not testify; Mark and Lee B. did.
In 1976, while he was posted in Westlake Village, Vincent and Timothy F.'s mother went to St. Jude to complain, according to court documents. Church officials say they have no record of that, according to J. Michael Hennigan, Mahony’s lawyer.
The next year, Wempe was transferred to Sacred Heart Church in Ventura. He stayed there eight months before being moved again, to Paraclete High School in Lancaster, where he was golf coach.
Once again, Wempe stayed in contact with boys from his old parish, while also finding new victims closer to home.
There were William M. and Greg J., both members of the golf team. And there were two brothers from Lake Hughes, members of St. Elizabeth’s Mission, where Wempe sometimes filled in.
As he had done elsewhere, the priest seduced with a mixture of delicious food and adrenaline-pumping outings, such as motorcycle trips to Hearst Castle and water- and snow-skiing trips. He also took some of his victims to visit his own mother.
In 1984, Wempe was moved again, this time to St. Sebastian in Santa Paula.
It did not take long for him to find two fatherless boys. One of them, Patrick C., recalled outings for miniature golf, deep-sea fishing, camping and shooting.
For nearly a decade, Wempe also kept up with Lee B, one of the brothers of his current accuser. In 1986, after years of allowing underage drivers to pilot his cars and motorcycles while he fondled them, Wempe was involved in a car accident.
Lee B. testified that he was driving Wempe’s car while the priest sat beside him and his younger brother Jayson B., the present accuser, sat in the back. Lee said the priest began fondling him, causing him to become distracted and swerve into a truck. His brother suffered serious injuries. For a long time, Lee B. said, he blamed himself. Now, he said, he blames Wempe.
Lee B. said the Catholic Church paid for his brother’s medical care.
A few months later, someone finally objected to the rectory sleepovers that Wempe held.
Patrick C. and his brother John C. testified that they remembered a priest named Father Rothe angrily approaching them one day as they left Wempe’s room.
Rothe had “a very admonishing look on his face,” Patrick C. testified, and he gruffly dispatched the boys to wait by the door of the rectory while he talked to Wempe. After that, there was a new rule: Children were not allowed in the rectory.
According to church files, Rothe wrote to the archdiocese’s vicar of the clergy accusing Wempe of “boundary violations,” which the church defined as “indiscreet conduct with young boys without any evidence of actual molestation.”
Shortly after those incidents, Patrick C. testified, Wempe told him that he was being sent on sabbatical. The priest was distressed. He broke down once while saying Mass. He also cried privately to Patrick C., complaining that this would hurt his career. He said he had hoped to become a monsignor.
In 1988, after six months at a treatment center in New Mexico, Wempe returned to Los Angeles County and was assigned to be a chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center -- a decision Mahony now says was a mistake.
Wempe remained there until 2002, when Mahony asked him to retire. That same year, as the clergy sex scandal erupted across the country, Wempe’s victims began to come forward.
The older brothers of the current accuser were among the first to tell their stories. In 2003, Wempe was charged with molesting children from 1977 to 1986. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California law allowing old prosecutions was invalid. Wempe went free, with his attorney proclaiming the retired priest’s innocence.
Late last year, however, Wempe admitted, through his lawyer, that he had molested the 13 boys during the 1970s and ‘80s. The admission came as part of an attempt to limit damaging testimony in the current trial about old abuse cases.
Shortly after the Supreme Court ruling that set Wempe free, Jayson B. said he had been molested in the 1990s, recently enough to allow prosecution.
Wempe, who has not testified, sits quietly in court next to his lawyer each day. His sister and her husband sit directly behind him; his sister takes notes on a purple notepad.
They are among the few courtroom observers. Wempe’s victims, for the most part, did not bring anyone with them for support as they testified about things they said were so painful they’d never even told their wives. Instead, waiting to testify, they sat together in the cool, dim hallway outside the courtroom, talking about Kobe Bryant or paging through paperbacks.
During breaks, Wempe at times walked by their little cluster on his way to the bathroom. The victims averted their eyes.