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Church's Victims Abused Again by High Court

By Steve Lopez - Los Angeles Times
June 27, 2003

I don't know how many rosaries were said by bishops and cardinals praying for someone to get them off the hook, but the U.S. Supreme Court has risen to the call.

Hundreds of child molesters could be released from prison because of a ruling Thursday by the Supremes, but it was an even luckier day for leaders of the Roman Catholic Church.

Jim Robertson of SNAP addresses the media as he holds an enlarged Monopoly "Get out of jail free" card at Friday's SNAP news conference in Los Angeles.
(AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

Take the case of Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who had held on for dear life to files demanded by child abuse investigators. Now he's got a little breathing room, just as prosecutors were prepared to charge another 10 priests with abuse.

The high court struck down California's 1994 extension of the statute of limitations, which allowed the prosecution of old cases. The high court apparently believes a child, no matter how young or psychologically intimidated by an abuser, ought to get on the horn and call the cops.

As Lee Bashforth of Orange County knows, it doesn't work that way.

His parents were divorced, and when he was 7, Bashforth's mother thought he should spend time with a father figure. Unfortunately, she chose the Catholic priest who was practically a part of the family. Mom obviously had no idea what kind of guidance her son was getting on weekend sleepovers with Father Michael Wempe.

"I would stay in his bed with him in the rectory with the complete knowledge of the monsignor there," says Lee Bashforth, now 33 and a financial planner.

Molestation victims are routinely coached and frightened into silence. It wasn't until almost two years ago that Bashforth and his older brother, another alleged victim, began dealing with repressed memories and telling investigators about it.

A week ago, Wempe's past finally caught up with him. He was arrested and charged with 42 counts of molestation involving Bashforth and his brother, along with three other victims, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Now, thanks to the get-out-of-jail-free card handed him by the Supreme Court, Wempe will walk. And Bashforth feels as though he's been abused again — this time by defenders of justice at the highest level.

"I got a call from my attorney, and I was absolutely floored," says Bashforth.

"The Supreme Court ruling betrays every victim of sexual abuse in this country. It basically said it doesn't understand the concept of repressed memory, whether it's repression or the sheer humiliation that keeps you locked in silence for years."

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said he understood the argument that California's retroactive extension of the statute of limitations could be seen as unfair. But the reason for it, he said, was that so many minors never got justice, partly because of stonewalling by the likes of church officials. That meant the perps were still out there, trolling for new victims.

"The whole intent was to give some recourse in light of what we now know was decades of intentional cover-up," said Cooley. "There was no one taking the side of the victims, and there were people who could have and should have. There's been a huge moral failing for years."

Cooley said that of the 200 L.A. County sex-abuse cases that could be dropped because of Thursday's ruling, priests account for a small percentage of the molesters. But those cases have disproportionately eaten up investigators' time because of the church's refusal to cooperate.

The church's files on Wempe, for instance, were withheld from a Los Angeles County Grand Jury, delaying the arrest of the priest. But it's no surprise Cardinal Mahony wanted to keep that particular file under lock and key.

When the scandal boiled over last year, Mahony's glasses steamed up to the point where he admitted he knew of child-abuse allegations against Wempe. Once Wempe had completed a drive-through inspection at one of the church's reliable "treatment" facilities, Mahony sent him to be chaplain at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Wempe lived at a parish house near a school.

When your judgment as spiritual leader of the largest diocese in the country gets that bad, the only honorable things to do are to ask forgiveness and then quickly fill out the retirement forms. But Mahony's vainglory delivers him beyond shame, and Thursday's developments in Washington, D.C., can only embolden him.

Don't look for Bashforth to abandon his quest for justice, though. He said that although he feels betrayed by the Supreme Court ruling, it doesn't affect the lawsuit he filed against Wempe and the L.A. Archdiocese.

"For what Wempe did," Bashforth said, "Roger Mahony and the Los Angeles Archdiocese have culpability and ought to be held accountable in some way."

I asked Bashforth whether he still finds comfort in a church that, for many, is bigger than the sins of the few.

"I haven't been able to go into a church and don't know that I ever will be able to," he said. "My faith is one of the many casualties of all this."

*

Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday. He can be reached at steve.lopez@latimes.com.



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