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
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
"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
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
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
"I wouldn't call that gross negligence," he said. "I
would call that gross stupidity."
-- Tom Kisken's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.