Former pastor under fire

Marisa O'Neil

SEAL BEACH-- A group of abuse survivors gathered outside of Leisure

World Thursday afternoon to let residents know that two of their

neighbors, including a former pastor at a Costa Mesa church, have

faced sexual-abuse charges.

Denis Lyons, 70, former pastor at St. John the Baptist Catholic

Church, and 63-year-old Michael Wempe, a former Catholic priest in

Los Angeles, both live in the retirement community, according to

members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Though

neither has been convicted of a crime, residents -- some who have

grandchildren visit the complex on a regular basis -- should know

about the accusations, said Esther Miller, the group's Orange County


"The wolf is not just knocking at the door," warned Karie Duncan,

one of half a dozen survivors protesting outside the community on

Thursday. "He lives next door."

The group organized the peaceful protest after Wempe was released

from a Los Angeles jail last weekend. A superior court judge lowered

Wempe's bail last week, while the former priest awaits trial on

charges he engaged in lewd and lascivious acts with a child under 14.

Lyons, pastor at St. John the Baptist for 18 years, was jailed

last year and charged with one count of performing a lewd and

lascivious act against a child younger than 16 and four counts of

oral copulation with a child about 25 years ago. He was released

after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law allowing

prosecution of old sex crimes.

"We are very troubled that children living nearby and visiting

Leisure World are needlessly being placed at risk of abuse by the

presence of two Catholic priests living here at Leisure World,

despite accusations of molesting children," Miller read from a

written statement outside the community's gates.

The protesters said they wanted to make residents aware that the

two men are living in their neighborhood and encourage them to report

any suspected abuse, Miller said. They also brought a letter asking

Leisure World administrators to notify residents or allow them to

come onto the property to distribute fliers letting them know of the


They attempted to deliver the letter to Harbir Narang, an

administrator with the community. Security personnel said he was

unavailable but promised Miller they would give Narang the letter.

Calls to Leisure World Thursday afternoon were not immediately


The protest drew attention from residents as they passed through

the community's main gate. Erika Furlong said she worried about

children, like her 3-year-old grandson, who visit.

"These priests shouldn't be allowed to live here," she said. "At

least we need to let the community know."

Lyons retired from service about the time charges surfaced. He

cannot perform any priestly functions, said Shirl Giacomi, chancellor

for the Diocese of Orange.

But, she said, Lyons and others have a right to live their lives.

"It is a problem," Giacomi said. "Because when a priest is removed

and then is no longer under our supervision, he does have to live

somewhere, but there's no longer any connection [to the diocese].

It's something throughout the country that dioceses are trying to

deal with."

* MARISA O'NEIL covers public safety and courts. She may be

reached at (949) 574-4268 or by e-mail at

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