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Priest Held Again in Alleged Sex Abuse
Earlier charges against the former Cedars-Sinai chaplain were dismissed after a high court ruling. New allegations aren't affected by that decision.

By Richard Winton - LA Times
September 11, 2003

A retired Roman Catholic priest reassigned by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center after the priest was accused of molesting boys in the 1980s was arrested Wednesday on suspicion of sexually abusing a child in his chaplain's office at the hospital from 1990 to 1995.

The Rev. Michael Wempe was one of 10 priests whose charges of sexual abuse were dismissed this summer after a U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated the prosecution of decades-old molestation cases. The 63-year-old cleric had been charged in June with molesting five boys between 1977 and 1986 in Westlake Village, Palmdale and Ventura. He was released from jail this summer in the wake of the court ruling.

The new allegations, prosecutors said, cover a time period not affected by the high court decision.

The latest reported victim, now 24-years old, came forward only after hearing the other charges against Wempe had been dropped, authorities said. Wempe, who was arrested while eating breakfast at his Seal Beach retirement home, is being held in lieu of $2-million bail.

Mary Grant, spokeswoman for the California chapter of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, said the latest allegations show the consequences of failing to fire and report abusive priests. "This cardinal transferred a priest who molested a new victim," she said.

After learning of the sex abuse allegations, Mahony ordered Wempe to complete psychiatric treatment and then transferred Wempe to Cedars-Sinai in 1988. Mahony later acknowledged he should not have reassigned Wempe without telling hospital officials about the accusations. Instead, Mahony told The Times last year, he should have reported Wempe to police and forced him to immediately resign.

"There had been absolutely no allegations against Wempe following his therapy and during his longtime placement at Cedars-Sinai," said Tod Tamberg, the archdiocese spokesman. "We thought he was one of our success stories. If this allegation proves true, it will be a bitter disappointment."

Donald Steier, one of Wempe's attorneys, also expressed surprise.

"I am shocked. I cannot help but be suspicious of the timing of these allegations after the Supreme Court decision," he said, maintaining his client's innocence.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott of the Family Crimes Bureau, said the alleged victim was 11 when the abuse began in 1990. Wempe was a family friend, the victim told authorities, who allegedly molested him in a car and the chaplain's office, Scott said. The man was not a patient at the hospital at the time.

The alleged victim, who was not identified by authorities, came forward after the Supreme Court ruling, which has affected as many as 800 cases statewide and more than 200 in Los Angeles County. The high court decision voided a state law that gave prosecutors one year to file charges after they were notified of alleged sex crimes, regardless of when the crimes occurred. Prosecutors say that under the ruling they can file charges only for alleged abuse that happened after 1988.

Wempe's accuser told sheriff's investigators that he "was too ashamed to come forward earlier because he believed that Wempe would be convicted and sentenced on the testimony of the other victims," Scott said.

Cedars-Sinai officials said they first learned of abuse allegations against Wempe after he left the hospital last year.

"Based upon a review of our security records, we have confirmed there were no complaints or claims of misconduct regarding Father Wempe during the time he was assigned by L.A. Archdiocese to the hospital," said Grace Cheng, vice president of public relations.

Mahony forced Wempe to retire last year from the Cedars chaplaincy and from the active clergy, along with six other accused priests, as he retroactively applied a zero-tolerance policy for sex abusers in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Mahony told The Times he had ordered Wempe to a New Mexico treatment facility after the allegations in the 1980s. After treatment, Mahony said, experts told him that Wempe could be trusted to work in a place without access to children, such as a jail or hospital. Mahony said he was unaware that Cedars had a pediatric unit. Mahony said he did not report the abuse allegations to police until last year. He said he thought a therapist who treated Wempe in the 1980s had reported it earlier.

Other alleged victims of Wempe said Wednesday that the arrest showed how the L.A. Archdiocese acted like the Boston Archdiocese under former Cardinal Bernard Law — transferring pedophiles who continued to abuse children.

"Mahony and Bernard Law were reading from the same operating manual," said Lee Bashforth, 33, an alleged victim of Wempe during the 1970s. "They sacrificed young people to these sexual predators."

Bashforth and his brother were ages 8 and 12, respectively, when, he alleged, Wempe began abusing them at the Westlake Village parish of St. Jude where they served as altar boys. Bashforth was among the five alleged victims Wempe was accused of molesting in June.

"I am just so sorry this had to happen, you know, that these kinds of things happened," Wempe said after he was released the following month. "I'm happy that it's been dismissed."

Wempe's church personnel files were among those demanded by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury. The archdiocese has fought the release of documents reflecting communications between top church officials and priests, claiming it would violate their civil rights.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said the Wempe case "underscores the importance of ongoing litigation with the Los Angeles Archdiocese relative to records sought as criminal evidence in allegations of priests abusing children."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests