A former Roman Catholic priest whom Cardinal Roger M. Mahony said he erred in transferring after allegations of sexual abuse faced his newest accuser Monday in Los Angeles County Superior Court.
The 24-year-old man testified that Michael Wempe molested him as a child in the priest’s car and in his office at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. Wiping his eyes and sighing deeply, he said he was confused and disgusted.
As Wempe fondled him, he testified, the priest and close family friend told him how much he loved him and cared about him.
“I didn’t know why he would be doing something that was wrong,” he testified.
Wempe, 64, sat quietly in his orange jail jumpsuit as he listened to the testimony in his preliminary hearing, which will determine if there is enough evidence for a trial. His attorney said Wempe faces at least 20 years in prison if convicted.
The retired priest has pleaded not guilty and is being held in lieu of $500,000 bail. One of Wempe’s attorneys, Leonard B. Levine, said his client “adamantly denies” the allegations.
The Times does not name victims of sexual abuse.
Over two hours, the man testified that Wempe molested him from age 11 to 15. His mother arranged for him to spend time with Wempe because she wanted him to have some guidance from an adult male.
Wempe also spent time with the man’s two older brothers, he testified. Both men have also accused Wempe of molesting them.
Wempe was criminally charged with molesting both brothers and three other children, but the charges were dropped last summer after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that California’s attempt to prosecute older cases of child molestation was unconstitutional.
Noting that Wempe had baptized him, the man testified Monday, “I had no reason not to trust him.”
He testified that he twice went with Wempe to Cedars-Sinai, where the priest sat him on his lap and fondled him while he played on a computer. The priest made it seem normal, he said, and told him it “sometimes feels good.” He testified that the priest abused him three more times in his car.
When he realized Wempe’s actions were inappropriate, the man testified he became “absolutely disgusted” and horrified.
“I knew what happened was wrong,” he said. “I was sick to my stomach.”
Despite that, the man said, he didn’t tell his family or the police. Even after his brothers filed a lawsuit alleging that Wempe molested them, he continued to keep quiet.
“I was embarrassed, ashamed,” he testified. “I just wanted it to go away. I promised myself just to bury it and keep it a secret for the rest of my life.”
He decided to come forward, he testified, after the earlier charges against Wempe, based in part on his brothers’ allegations, were dropped.
“I changed my mind when I realized that the only thing that would ensure justice was if I got involved,” he said. “I realized that justice was too big a price to pay for my secret.”
Wempe was among seven priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese whom Mahony forced into retirement in 2002 as the sexual abuse scandal escalated. He was ordained in 1966 and worked at St. Jude parish in Westlake Village beginning in 1974, where the two brothers alleged that Wempe molested them on overnight trips and in his room.
The brothers alleged that Wempe continued to abuse them despite his transfer to other parishes.
Mahony acknowledged that after learning of earlier allegations, he transferred Wempe from St. Jude to a chaplain’s job at Cedars-Sinai.
Mahony later said he should have forced Wempe to resign immediately at that time.
He said he had been told that Wempe could be trusted to work in a place without access to children.
Cross-examination is scheduled for this morning before Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Jacob Adajian.