Michael Wempe, a Los Angeles priest removed from ministry last year after allegations of child abuse, was arrested outside his Leisure World home Thursday on suspicion of molesting at least five children over more than a decade.
Wempe’s arrest, the 13th in recent years in Los Angeles and Orange counties of priests suspected of abusing children, adds fresh fuel to a sex-abuse scandal that has tarnished the Catholic Church and opened a wide rift between the church and prosecutors, who say the Archdiocese of Los Angeles has stonewalled attempts to review personnel records of suspect priests.
The arrest also ends months of agony for his accusers, like Lee Bashforth, a 33-year-old financial adviser in Lake Forest who said Wempe, now 63, molested him and his brother for years in the 1970s and 1980s while cultivating a close relationship with their family.
“I feel tremendous relief today,” said Bashforth, who said he has channeled his anger into activism, founding an Orange County chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Ten people attended the group’s first meeting Tuesday in Lake Forest.
Wempe’s lawyer, Leonard Levine, said his client will plead not guilty at an expected Monday arraignment.
“He denies the allegations pending against him,” Levine said. “We’re hopeful that when the evidence comes out, he will be exonerated.”
Bashforth, who sued Wempe and the Los Angeles archdiocese last year for unspecified damages, said he met Wempe in 1976, when Bashforth was a 6-year-old parishioner at St. Jude’s Church in Westlake Village. Wempe, a parish priest, befriended Bashforth’s family and offered to help his mother with her boys during their father’s frequent business trips, Bashforth says.
“He was a young priest, in his early 30s, very charismatic, loved by everyone that knew him,” Bashforth said. “People didn’t have a thought in the world that anything would come to their children. They thought traditional Catholic things: He’s got the ear of God, walks with God.”
Wempe offered to take the boys camping, shooting, and riding on his red Honda motorcycle. He would pull up on the bike in the morning, take Bashforth’s younger brother out for a ride, come back for lunch with the family, then take Lee out for the afternoon, Bashforth said.
On one of the first rides, Wempe sat Lee in front of him, kept one hand on the handlebars and, with the other, reached down and fondled him, Bashforth said.
“I’m sure that my body tensed up, and there was an indication to him that I was uncomfortable,” said Bashforth, who says repressed memories of the molestation surfaced last year when news reports of abusive priests crested. “But my thinking at the time is: ‘This is God that’s doing this to me. This is someone that is perhaps my favorite person in the world. How could what he’s doing be wrong?”
More molestation occurred during driving lessons and sleepovers at the priest’s parish residence, Bashforth said.
Meanwhile, Wempe drew closer to the family. The boys made him cards for Father’s Day. Every Christmas, the family traveled to whatever church Wempe served to hear him celebrate Mass, then have lunch with him and his mother, Bashforth said.
There were many churches as Wempe moved repeatedly around Los Angeles and Ventura counties. Finally, in the late 1980s, after another boy reported similar acts of abuse, Wempe was sent to a church- run retreat center “to go get treatment,” said archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg. On the center’s recommendation, Wempe was made chaplain at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. Hospital officials were not told of the abuse allegations.
When Wempe was sent for treatment, he told the Bashforths he was taking a sabbatical, then largely fell out of touch. Bashforth, however, invited him to his wedding two years ago. Wempe arrived in his clerical collar, “stood before my family and friends and professed to have a cherished, decades-long relationship with my family and how he’d watched me grow up and everything,” Bashforth said.
A few months later, memories of the abuse came back in a horrible flood, said Bashforth.
“I can’t bring myself to go into a church,” the former altar boy said. “I developed an animosity toward Catholicism. If this were a teacher or a coach, he would be in jail along with those who have covered up. All (church officials) care about is protecting the church and themselves.”
Tamberg said church officials have moved to block prosecutors’ access to priests’ personnel files – including Wempe’s to ensure compliance with California’s strict privacy laws. Prosecutors, who have expressed frustration at the diocese’s stance, said they routinely get such documents from other institutions, such as school districts, when they conduct child-abuse investigations.
Tamberg said Wempe was not turned over to police or suspended from ministry earlier because, until the late 1990s, church officials were not required to report child abusers, and treatment doctors said Wempe could be returned to a limited ministry.
Wempe was forced to retire last year when Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony adopted a zero-tolerance policy for priests accused of sex abuse.
On Thursday, Wempe was pulled over at about 6:45 a.m. by two Seal Beach police squad cars and two cars of Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sex-crimes investigators as he drove out the front gates of Leisure World, where he lives with his mother.
He was handcuffed and arrested without incident and jailed on $2 million bail, said sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Scott. The arrest is based on reports that Wempe committed “substantial acts of sexual abuse” – acts that go beyond fondling, said Scott.
Tamberg pointed out that no new allegations surfaced against Wempe while he worked at Cedars Sinai. “While some people might even call that somewhat of a success story, nevertheless, when Cardinal Mahony decided that we needed to be absolutely sure that the church is safe for all of our children and young people,” Wempe was ejected.