Content of L.A. Report on Clergy Abuse Disputed

By Feuerherd, Joe | National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Content of L.A. Report on Clergy Abuse Disputed

Feuerherd, Joe, National Catholic Reporter

The 155-page report describing decades of clergy sexual abuse in Los Angeles is a just-the-facts account of an institution slowly coming to grips with a horrendous problem, according to archdiocesan officials. Not so, say victim advocates and their attorneys, who view the documents released by the archdiocese as a tale of malevolent mismanagement by church leaders more concerned with image than the well-being of children.

The documents, released Oct. 12, "show the evolution of how the problem of sex abuse was dealt with over time by church officials," said Ted Tamberg, spokesman for the archdiocese. "At first, it was treated as a sin, then in the 1970s and 1980s therapy seemed the way to go. Finally, there was the horrible realization of the repetitive nature of sexual abuse, and it became clear that 'zero tolerance' was the only way to ensure the safety of children."

Rather than a good-faith effort to describe the phenomenon of clergy sex abuse, the report is "a dumbed-down, sanitized version of the very ugly history of the church moving and manipulating [offending] priests without ever warning parishioners," said Raymond Boucher, the Los Angeles attorney representing nearly 300 alleged clergy abuse victims. The real story of hierarchical complicity with priest-predators will only be known, said Boucher, when the archdiocese agrees to release the underlying priest personnel files upon which the report is based.

The report is essentially a timeline of the careers and accusations made against 126 archdiocesan and religious order priests in Los Angeles dating back more than 50 years. What it indisputably provides is the first behind-the-curtain look at the activities of clergy abusers and the reaction of their superiors in the nation's largest archdiocese.

It is not, all sides agree, a pretty picture.

Somewhat typical of the profiles provided is the case of Fr. Michael Wempe, who was ordained in 1966. In May 1987, according to the documents, the pastor at St. Sebastian Parish in Santa Paula reported Wempe, an associate at the parish, to the archdiocesan vicar for clergy. In his complaint, the pastor noted that Wempe had committed "boundary violations." In June of that year Wempe began six months of treatment in Jemez Springs, N.M., at a treatment program for priest offenders administered by the Servants of the Paraclete.

In January 1988, Cardinal Roger Mahony assigned Wempe to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he served as chaplain while residing at St. Ambrose Parish. The following month, two brothers complained to the archdiocese that Wempe had molested them a decade earlier.

Wempe continued to receive periodic treatment in Jemez Springs, but continued as a hospital chaplain and priest-in-residence at two parishes through February 2002, according to the documents.

In another case, three complaints against Fr. George Rucker made over a 24-month period in the mid-1960s, including one for" imprudent relations with schoolgirls," were seemingly ignored by church officials. Rucker went on to serve nearly 20 years as a pastor at three different Los Angeles parishes. Following his 1987 retirement, seven additional complaints against Rucker were filed with archdiocese officials. In April 2002, Mahony prohibited Rucker from engaging in public ministry.

Release of the documents follows three years of wrangling among the archdiocese, plaintiffs' attorneys, and attorneys for the accused priests. On Sept.

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