Monday, November 21, 2005


Ex-Priest Admits Old Sex Charges

Los Angeles - The attorney for a former Los Angeles priest admitted Friday that his client had molested 13 boys in the 1970s and 1980s, an unusual public acknowledgment of guilt in the hundreds of sexual abuse cases against the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Michael Edwin Wempe's lawyer made the admission during a hearing in a criminal case accusing the former priest of molesting another boy in the 1990s when he was chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

The lawyer did so for strategic reasons in an attempt to limit damaging testimony about old abuse cases while he continues to fight the current charges. Wempe's case is being watched closely because he is one of three priests accused of molesting children after Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, responding to abuse complaints, sent him to therapy and returned him to ministry.

The archdiocese has been sued by more than 560 people for allegedly failing to protect children from abuse, but the cases have long been mired in settlement talks and only a handful of the allegations have been tested in court.

The Wempe case has a tangled history: The former priest was originally charged with 42 counts stemming from decades-old molestations, one of which involved two brothers. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that the California law allowing prosecution of old child abuse cases violated the statute of limitations, and the charges were dismissed.

The two boys' younger brother came forward and said Wempe had molested him in the 1990s, within the statutory time limit. The Times generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual abuse.

The defense contends that the younger brother fabricated his accusation to avenge his older brothers. On Friday, defense attorneys Leonard B. Levine and Donald H. Steier asked the court to limit testimony about Wempe's past molestation of the older brothers.

Noting that the current victim is the only one to come forward after 1987, when Wempe returned from therapy, they argued that an inundation of testimony about the priest's abuse history could unfairly bias jurors.

Jurors probably "will say to themselves, 'We don't care. We are going to find him guilty for what he did 20 years ago,' " Levine told the court.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Todd Hicks said he wanted to put on all 13 of Wempe's earlier victims to show that the priest was "a master" at child molestation by the time he met the younger brother.

Judge Curtis Rappe said he would allow the defense additional witnesses, but hadn't decided how many. Without the background, Rappe said, it "would give a false impression that it was just a little family conspiracy."

Wempe is accused of fondling and masturbating the younger brother during driving lessons and in a parked car. Defense lawyers have said there is no independent evidence of the brother's story. In court papers, they contended that Wempe, who denies the abuse, passed two polygraph tests.

Prosecutors "are trying to convict someone for something he didn't do based on something he did do 20 or 30 years ago," Levine said. "That is not the way the system works."

Lee Bashforth, one of Wempe's earlier victims, said the former priest should not get away with admitting past molestations without suffering consequences. Bashforth recalled watching video of the smiling priest leaving Los Angeles County Jail after the earlier case was dismissed, and his lawyer's statement that Wempe's only regret was he didn't get the chance to clear his name.

"They are obviously saying this now because the truth cannot really harm them," he said.

See also, the never-ending chronicle of church-related crime.

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