Within minutes of taking the witness stand, one of Father Michael Wempe's sexual abuse victims burst into tears Thursday, gazing at a picture of his son, then 4, seated on the priest's lap at a Christmas gathering.
"I can't believe I did that," the witness, identified only as Mark B., said Thursday, wiping his eyes. "I put my son on the lap of a pedophile."
Wempe, on trial for allegedly molesting Mark B.'s youngest brother, met the family in the 1970s when they attended St. Jude Catholic Church in Westlake Village, Mark B. testified.
"He was a person of great importance to my family. We didn't know a lot of people when we moved to Westlake Village," he said. "He became a surrogate father, not just a spiritual father."
Mark B. said he recalled Wempe fondly until spring 2001, when the priest was invited to his younger brother Lee's wedding. Suddenly, he said, memories fell into place of the motorcycle rides when Wempe fondled him, and the camping trip when the priest snuggled up to him in bed.
After the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 barred prosecution for decades-old child abuse, Wempe admitted to molesting 13 boys in the 1970s and 1980s, including Mark B. and his brother Lee.
Mark B.'s and Lee's youngest brother, Jayson, then came forward and accused the priest of molesting him in the early 1990s at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Cardinal Roger M. Mahony had assigned Wempe to the hospital after sending him for treatment for pedophilia.
Wempe's lawyer, Leonard Levine, says the current accuser is lying to avenge his brothers.
Mark B., now 42, was the seventh Wempe victim in four days to testify in the downtown Los Angeles courtroom of Judge Curtis R. Rappe, and by far the most emotional. During nearly three hours of testimony, he said he blamed himself for not protecting his younger siblings.
"I can accept that I was abused but I cannot accept the fact that I was a gatekeeper for my brothers," he testified.
As a child, Mark B. said he didn't understand that he was being molested, and that he feared Wempe would abandon him if he told anyone. "He was my priest," he testified. "Why would my priest do something wrong to me?"
Under questioning by Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Todd Hicks, the witness said he never asked his younger brother Lee, who spent lots of time alone with Wempe, if he was molested.
"I was too afraid of what he might say," he testified.
Then, one day in early 2002, Lee called Mark B. at his home in Norway, totally distraught.
"I said 'Lee, stop.... You don't have to say any more because the same thing happened to me,' " Mark B. testified.
As the day's grueling testimony ended, Wempe covered his eyes and wept. He faces 16 years in prison if convicted on charges of oral copulation and lewd conduct with a minor.