Ex-priests accused of abuse set free after Supreme Court decis

Saturday, June 28, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Two former priests were freed from jail Friday following a Supreme Court decision invalidating a state law that retroactively extended the statute of limitations on old molestation cases.

Lawrence Lovell, 55, and Michael Wempe, 63, were among 11 Roman Catholic priests in Los Angeles County whose charges will likely be dismissed because they were brought under the 1994 law.

"I have absolutely nothing that I want to say to you, OK?" Wempe told reporters as he left jail. Asked if he felt vindicated, he said: "No."

Clergy abuse investigations have been among the most widely publicized as people came forward to report sometimes decades-old molestations. But Thursday's high court decision affects other cases as well, and state authorities say about 800 cases not involving priests will have to be reviewed.

Several members of the organization Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests on Friday criticized the high court's ruling.

"Yesterday was a bleak day for everyone who wants to keep children safe," said Joelle Casteix. "Hundreds of dangerous men who committed heinous and disgusting crimes against children will now go free."

Wempe's attorney, Leonard Levine, said his client has always denied the allegations.

Wempe was arrested June 19 at his home in Seal Beach, and Lovell was arrested in New Mexico shortly after a warrant was issued on March 26.

The 1994 law allowed prosecutors to pursue cases in which the statute had already expired. But the Supreme Court ruled that the government cannot retroactively erase statutes of limitations. The majority said it was fundamentally unfair to change the rules after the fact.

Larry Guzin, whose office represents 20 priests in sex cases, said he hopes prosecutors will dismiss the pending cases and drop investigations of allegations that date beyond the statute of limitations.

"We are hopeful that the district attorney will recognize the state of the law and foreclose investigation of any of our clients whose allegations are ancient," Guzin said.

Sandi Gibbons, spokeswoman for District Attorney Steve Cooley, said prosecutors met Friday to determine if any of the cases could be salvaged.

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