This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  October 21, 2005

Content of L.A. report on clergy abuse disputed


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 Tod 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. 22, the California Court of Appeals ruled that the archdiocese could release a summary of the “proffers” -- a description of facts the church concedes as part of its negotiations with victims. Mediation efforts aimed at avoiding civil trials in more than 600 claims against the Los Angeles church are ongoing.

One thing evident from the documents: Church officials prefer delicate language to a straightforward description of events. The phrase “boundary violation” is employed 11 times in the report, while the words “inappropriate” or “inappropriately” are used 44 times. There is no mention of “rape,” and one reference to “sodomy.” The word “molested” appears 25 times.

Further, the descriptions provided in the report do not include the names of archdiocesan officials who dealt with the complaints, nor their reaction to the complaints.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ attorneys continue to seek release of the underlying documents -- personnel files the archdiocese claims are privileged -- upon which the proffer summaries are based. “The actual files [will] show a very complete and extensive documentation of what the church did over the years in protecting priests from prosecution and exposing children without warning” to predatory priests, predicted Boucher. He said the archdiocese should not contest release of the documents but provide them to the court to do with as it sees fit.

A grand jury is seeking those documents over the objection of the archdiocese, which contends that their release would violate constitutional protections accorded to churches. That dispute will be decided by the California Supreme Court.

David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abuse by Priests, said in statement that once the actual files are released “the truth will be much worse.” He cites the example of last month’s report from a Philadelphia grand jury that looked at clergy sexual abuse of minors (NCR, Oct. 7).

“Look at what a real, objective examination of confidential church documents proves,” Clohessy said. “ ‘A concerted campaign of cover-up’ by church officials. Those aren’t my words. That’s the conclusion of an unbiased panel of citizens who forced access to secret church records.”

Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference, told NCR that he expects recent developments on the sex abuse front in Philadelphia and Los Angeles to be talked about at the bishops’ fall meeting.

“Obviously, there will be some discussion of where the sexual abuse question is at,” he said.

“The general agenda is already set, but bishops can bring up anything they like at the last minute, and I’m sure there will be guys who will want to talk about this,” Skylstad said.

Skylstad is in Rome attending an Oct. 2-23 Synod of Bishops, and will remain for another three days, joined by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, vice president of the conference, to make an annual round of visits by the officers of the American conference to the Roman curia.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is John L. Allen Jr., NCR Rome correspondent, contributed to this report.

Related Web sites
The report on clergy abuse in Los Angeles can be viewed at the archdiocesan Web site Click on the link labeled "Addendum." It is also available in the Special Documents section of

National Catholic Reporter, October 21, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: