Jury Deliberates in L.A. Priest Abuse Case
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
A jury here in Los Angeles will continue deliberating the case of Michael Wempe tomorrow. The former priest is accused of molesting a boy in the early 1990s.
The sex abuse scandal is threatening the archdiocese with what could be the church's most expensive legal battle in the United States.
Rachel Myrow, with member station KPCC reports.
Ms. RACHEL MYROW reporting:
In his closing argument, Deputy District Attorney Todd Hicks likened Michael Wempe to a lion on the African savanna, carefully selecting the weakest members in a herd of gazelles.
District Attorney TODD HICKS (Prosecutor in the Wempe trial): And the Parishes where he preached at were his hunting grounds. And for him, the boys in the Parishes that he preached at were his prey.
Ms. MYROW: Wempe doesn't dispute he was a pedophile for the first two decades of his pastoral career, but in 1987, the church sent him away for a year of treatment in New Mexico. After that, said his defense attorney, Leonard Levine, his client stayed out of trouble.
Mr. LEONARD LEVINE (Defense Counsel for Wempe): No matter how much you have contempt or hatred for what that man did in the 1970s and 1980s, it's about the charges in this case.
Ms. MYROW: Just the same, the trial was dominated by tearful testimony of Wempe's earlier crimes, including the testimony of the plaintiff's two older brothers. They accused of Michael Wempe after the sex abuse scandal in Boston made national headlines.
Again, Deputy District Attorney, Todd Hicks.
District Attorney TOOD HICKS: Up until the scandal of 2001, every victim thought he was alone. People would see an article in the newspaper, read about it, and begin to think of their own lives, take stock of it, and then get the courage to come forward.
Ms. MYROW: Those victims coming forward prompted California lawmakers to lift the statute of limitations on sex abuse charges. That unleashed a flood of allegations and arrests.
But the United States Supreme Court struck down that window of legal opportunity, and Wempe was one of those who walked free. It took new claims of fresher crimes to put Wempe on trial again.
Elsewhere in Los Angeles and California, sex abuse victims frustrated by the Supreme Court decision filed civil cases' 560 against the Los Angeles Archdiocese alone. They accuse church officials of failing to protect children from predatory priests.
Mr. JASON BERRY (Author): I think Los Angeles is the worst archdiocese in the country.
Ms. MYROW: Jason Berry has written two books on the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and covered it for the National Catholic Reporter.
Mr. BERRY: Boston was glaring, but it's a much smaller archdiocese than Los Angeles. And the sheer range of the priests in Los Angeles who've done these things is rather numbing, to say the least.
Ms. MYROW: But in contrast to Boston, the Los Angeles Archdiocese has yet to release uncensored personnel files of priests the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office is trying to prosecute. Appealing to the United States Supreme Court, the archdiocese claims bishops have a First Amendment right to counsel priests in private.
And while earlier documents show the archdiocese did shelter pedophile priests in the past, spokesman Todd Tamberg says, in the 1990's that all changed.
Mr. TODD TAMBERG (Spokesman, Los Angeles Archdiocese): People were being taken out of ministry when we had new reports of abuse; and then in 2002, we made that retroactive so even past incidents of abuse and two of those priests were removed.
Ms. MYROW: But old cases could still put the Los Angeles Archdiocese in a difficult spot financially. Settling with 560 plaintiffs could cost as much as a billion dollars. And while insurance companies are expected to pick up the bulk of the tab, there are no guarantees.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Myrow in Los Angeles.
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