Wempe Is Convicted on 1 Count
The pedophile priest whom Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said he regretted returning to the ministry was found guilty Wednesday of one count of molesting a boy, marking the first significant criminal conviction of a Los Angeles cleric since the church’s sexual abuse scandal erupted four years ago.
Michael Edwin Wempe, forced into retirement from the Los Angeles Archdiocese, hung his head as the guilty verdict was read. Superior Court Judge Curtis Rappe ordered the Catholic cleric into custody.
Wempe, 66, has admitted sexually abusing 13 boys during his 36-year career in the archdiocese -- but denied that he abused the boy whose allegations landed him in court.
The case garnered close attention because it came as attorneys for the archdiocese were in settlement talks with more than 560 people suing the church for failing to protect them from abuse by priests. Such a settlement would almost surely be record-breaking, likely to reach hundreds of millions of dollars.
It also marked the first time victims of a serial abuser have come into open court to testify. Prosecutors had filed cases against nearly a dozen Los Angeles clerics in 2003, but the cases were dismissed when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a state law that lifted the statute of limitations for child abuse prosecutions.
The Wempe trial focused renewed attention on Mahony’s handling of molesting priests. The cardinal has admitted that he erred when he allowed Wempe to return to the ministry after sending him for treatment for pedophilia in 1987.
The verdict “sends a message to the archdiocese regarding this defendant,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Todd Hicks said. Wempe wouldn’t have had an opportunity to commit the crime if his predatory background had been revealed earlier, Hicks said.
Richard Farnell, who represents six of the 13 men Wempe has admitted abusing plus the current accuser, said the guilty verdict was “an incredible validation of their feelings about Wempe, and further than that about Mahony.”
“This is less an indictment of Wempe than of Mahony,” he said. “He obviously did not do the right thing. He covered up for his own selfish benefit.... He knew Wempe was a pedophile and instead of doing the right thing, which called for law enforcement to be contacted, Mahony put him out there and failed to warn parishioners.”
The jury found Wempe guilty on one count of child molestation but deadlocked on four others.
Both sides claimed partial victory in a case that could send the retiree to prison for a maximum of three years. He has served a year while he awaited trial.
Wempe’s lawyer, Leonard Levine, has said the victim, now 26 and known in court as Jayson B., made up the allegations to avenge his brothers, who Wempe has admitting abusing. Under the statute of limitations, the priest could not be prosecuted for the decades-old crimes.
Levine said his client was subjected to “a personal vendetta” by the accuser. “That’s a natural emotion,” Levine said. “But that’s not the rule of law.”
Levine said his client, who has diabetes and a heart condition, was “disappointed” by the guilty verdict but grateful to jurors for looking at each count and failing to convict on four of them.
Wempe did not testify in his own defense during the five-week trial that had men weeping on the stand as they told how the charming, motorcycle-riding priest had abused them, and forever warped their ability to trust and be intimate.
In 1987, Mahony sent Wempe for psychiatric treatment after Wempe’s supervisor accused him of “indiscreet conduct with young boys,” but then restored him to the ministry -- a decision that he has said publicly he now regrets.
After six months at a treatment center in New Mexico -- therapy that Wempe maintained cured him -- Mahony assigned him to the chaplaincy at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He remained there until he retired in 2002, when the clergy sex scandal erupted and Wempe’s victims began to come forward.
A year later, in June 2003, he was charged with 42 counts of child sexual molestation, but the case was dismissed after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s law extending the statute of limitations was unconstitutional.
Weeks after that decision, Wempe’s current accuser -- whose two older brothers had just lost their day in court against Wempe -- came forward and claimed he had been abused in the 1990s, within the statute of limitations.
Wempe is one of at least three priests accused -- and the first convicted -- of abusing children after they were sent to therapy and returned to active ministry.
Wempe’s trial also has served as a curtain raiser for the lawsuits, some of which could go before juries this year. After the verdict, both sides in those cases sought to frame the outcome as favorable to their cause.
The archdiocese released a statement that apologized for Wempe’s behavior but said it now has procedures in place to prevent abuse.
“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. To those he abused, we again apologize, and we assure them of our support and of our firm resolve to continue to employ effective means of preventing all forms of abuse in our church,” the statement said.
The jury took four days to decide Wempe’s fate. Late on Friday, they said they had a verdict on one count -- the charge that Wempe orally copulated his accuser in his car sometime between 1993 and 1995 -- but were deadlocked on four others.
The judge sent them back for more deliberations, but they were still unable to reach a consensus. They came close to acquitting Wempe on one count, voting 11 to 1 that he was not guilty of one lewd-conduct charge. On two other charges, they voted 7 to 5 that he was guilty. On the fifth count, some thought guilty, some thought innocent, and some could not make up their minds.
The judge declared a mistrial on those charges. Prosecutors said they would decide by the March 10 sentencing hearing whether to retry Wempe on those counts.
All of the jurors declined to comment on how they reached their verdict. They left through a rear door to avoid reporters.
The victim and a brother who accompanied him to court Wednesday also declined to comment. Both men, wearing dark jackets and sitting in the front row, remained expressionless as the verdict was read. Later, Hicks described the victim as “elated” at the conviction.
The support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests issued a statement calling on Wempe to “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.”