Trial Ordered for Ex-L.A. Priest in Sex Abuse Case

Times Staff Writer

Michael Stephen Baker, the priest who 17 years ago confessed to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony that he had molested boys, became the first Los Angeles cleric to be ordered to criminal trial since the Catholic Church's sex scandal broke last year.

After a two-day preliminary hearing in Downey, a Los Angeles County Superior Court commissioner ruled that there was enough evidence to try Baker on 29 felony charges of molestation. Baker left the ministry in 2000.

Prosecutors presented a single witness, Matthew Severson, a 35-year-old West Hollywood man who testified he had been sexually abused by Baker more than 100 times during the 1970s and 1980s, with the first alleged molestations beginning at age 7 or 8.

Besides involving the first former priest to be ordered to trial, the Baker case will be closely watched because of its link to Mahony. Baker told Mahony in 1986 that he had abused two or three boys, though Baker stayed in the ministry until 2000.

Mahony transferred Baker to nine parishes, many temporary assignments, after learning about the priest's history of alleged sex abuse and sending him to therapy. In 2000, the cardinal approved a confidential $1.3-million settlement to two men. Mahony removed Baker from the ministry that same year without notifying authorities or informing parishioners about the alleged abuses. Baker then successfully petitioned Pope John Paul II to be released from the priesthood.

Baker is one of more than 100 L.A.-area priests under investigation by the district attorney's office. Eleven have been charged in the last year.

A key piece of evidence presented by Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Katz was a letter written in 1994 by Baker, in which the then-priest apologized to Severson for his "immature emotions and psychosexual-screwed-up-ness," which he said had "slashed and burned through those years of your life seeking self-satisfaction in the name of love."

Commissioner Burt Barnett ruled that the letter was, "if not a confession, at least a strong admission of misconduct."

In the courtroom, Severson was supported by family, friends and Catholics who attended his childhood churches, St. Paul of the Cross in La Mirada and St. Hilary in Pico Rivera. After the commissioner's ruling, Severson's mother, Diane, gave her son a long hug and called it "the happiest day Matt and I have had together."

During the testimony, Baker's gaze remained fixed on the floor, a finger stroking his mustache.

In cross-examination, Donald Steier, Baker's attorney, asked Severson how many specific sexual encounters with Baker he could remember. Severson, who said the acts occurred in the rectory of two Los Angeles parishes and at a condominium in Palm Desert, said most of the alleged assaults had blended together in his memory.

But he was able to tie details of several to specific events, such as a New Year's Eve party, a church dance and an outing to see a movie, "Kramer vs. Kramer," with the priest. He occasionally referred to a timeline he had drawn last week to refresh his memory.

"I'm a bit of a list-maker," Severson said.

Steier also asked the witness if he had "a crush" on or was "infatuated" with Baker, a characterization that Severson denied. Baker's attorney succeeded in arguing that testimony about other alleged victims of Baker should not be considered at the hearing.

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