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Enraged Catholics Vent at Agoura Forum on Abuse

By Tom Kisken, Staff writer
April 17, 2002

Angry and frustrated Catholics venting at a clergy abuse forum wanted names of guilty priests. They wanted to know about money spent in settlements. They wanted reform.

"I feel like the Catholic Church is the Titanic and we've hit the iceberg and we're taking on water," said Dan Crisafulli of Agoura Hills, referring to priests accused of molestation, including the pastor of his childhood parish on the East Coast. "If we don't come clean and get rid of those people, I think the church will lose its credibility and people will start to leave."

More than 100 people gathered at St. Jude Church in Westlake Village on Monday night and unloaded in a sometimes loud meeting designed to air concerns and ask questions, many of which have no immediate answers.

Some talked of child abuse accusations involving the Rev. Michael Wempe, whose assignments from 1969 to 1987 included time as an associate pastor at St. Jude and three Ventura County parishes. Many others aimed their anger at the seemingly never-ending scandals haunting the church worldwide.

One man demanded to know if money collected for various national drives was being used by the Catholic hierarchy to pay off settlements to victims. A woman said she couldn't understand victims agreeing to settlements mandating they not go public with their stories.

Joe Manion, a St. Jude deacon, said the Catholic Church was becoming too arrogant and was losing trust.

"I think we've been betrayed," he said. "Our shepherds have let wolves into the flock."

Another speaker said the abuse allegations receiving publicity in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles are old cases, with some going back decades.

"I'm so tired of hearing that they're old priests or new priests," responded a woman from Oak Park. "These priests are not dead and they're not in jail. We're still at risk. Pedophiles are sick people and they do not change."

Demands for the release of priests' names drew applause. When a man in his 60s told of being a victim who was molested by a priest as a child, he received a standing ovation.

Several people spoke passionately about the value of Catholic faith and the need to heal any wounds. Marilou O'Halloran, who was born in the Philippines, said that as an immigrant she always considered the church home.

"I don't belittle anything, yet we have to go on," she said. "I can't see myself living without the Catholic Church."

A Westlake Village priest advised people not to allow their rage to dictate their reactions to scandals, calling it spiritual suicide.

Mothers talked of calling adult sons and asking if they had been molested. Some mentioned Wempe, who served at St. Jude in the 1970s and apparently gained a reputation as a caring, personable man of faith -- "a wonderful, wonderful priest," one longtime parishioner said.

That image was affected by Mahony's statement that he removed Wempe from the ministry earlier this year as part of a zero-tolerance policy on child abuse. An archdiocesan spokesman confirmed the cardinal also sent Wempe to a treatment facility for counseling and evaluation about 14 years ago before transferring him to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, in a move that Mahony now labels a mistake.

Last week, two brothers in Orange County filed a lawsuit against Wempe and the archdiocese. They say the priest sexually abused them when they were children living in the Conejo Valley in the 1970s and '80s. The brothers said they blocked the incidents from memory for decades.

Wempe of Seal Beach was unavailable for comment. A Los Angeles attorney who said previously he represented the priest also could not be reached.

Tuesday, the Rev. James Rothe said by telephone that when he became pastor at St. Sebastian Church in Santa Paula in 1987, Wempe had finished his stint as an associate and was awaiting a new assignment. Instead, the cardinal removed Wempe from the parish at Rothe's request and sent him to treatment.

Rothe, now retired and living in Twin Lakes, said he didn't hear of any abuse allegations but asked for Wempe's removal because he had children in his private room and had taken youths with him on a short vacation.

"I said it was a dangerous situation and I wanted him removed before anything happened," he said.

Rothe said he asked a regional church leader whether he should go to the police but was told that because he didn't have specific allegations there was nothing to report.

Wempe also served as an associate at St. Rose of Lima Church in Simi Valley from 1969 to 1973, according to a Los Angeles church source. He was at Ventura's Sacred Heart Church in 1977 before being reassigned the following year.

At the St. Jude forum, one parishioner cited Wempe's name in her insistence that people have a right to protect their children. Another hooted at Mahony's claim in a Los Angeles Times story that when he transferred Wempe to Cedars-Sinai he was not aware the hospital had a pediatric unit.

"Give me a break," she said.

As she smoked a cigarette outside the forum, another parishioner summed up her feelings about the allegations by saying she felt "sad, very sad."

"This is by far the biggest shock," she said.

Back inside the conference room, St. Jude's current pastor, Monsignor William Leser, listened to the outpouring of anger, frustration and concern about clergy abuse.

"I'm just as upset," he said, expressing the most frustration with cases where Catholic leaders have responded to allegations by transferring priests. "When they just move people around, that's gross negligence."

Then he talked about cases where priests are sent to treatment and then with the recommendation of a specialist reassigned to another ministry.

"I wouldn't call that gross negligence," he said. "I would call that gross stupidity."

-- Tom Kisken's e-mail address is

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests