Former priest to appear in court

Times Staff Writers

Less than two weeks after Cardinal Roger M. Mahony announced a landmark deal to settle lawsuits brought by 45 people who said they were molested by Catholic priests, the focus of the Southern California clergy sex scandal moves back to the criminal courts.

Former priest Michael Stephen Baker is due in court today for a hearing; he has been charged with molesting a boy after he had confessed to the cardinal that he was an abuser. He pleaded not guilty at an arraignment earlier this year.

Baker, whose case Mahony has said “troubles me the most,” is one of the most reviled ex-priests in a scandal that has implicated dozens of clergy in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, generated 562 claims of abuse and touched three out of every four parishes in the largest Roman Catholic archdiocese in the nation.

Mahony has acknowledged leaving 16 priests in the ministry after parishioners complained about inappropriate behavior with children. Baker is one of five who went on to molest.

Baker’s association with Mahony plus his return to court have fueled speculation about where the criminal investigation might be headed.


Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley accused the archdiocese of “a pattern of obstruction” when his office and the church fought over whether the archdiocese officials had to turn over documents to prosecutors.

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before Mahony, who maintained he could not turn over the priests’ files to a county grand jury without their consent, lost his bid in April.

The district attorney’s office, which has had the files on Baker and another priest since then, declined to comment. Across the country, despite five years of investigations that have resulted in scores of priests being charged with molestation, no high church officials have been charged.

Grand juries have issued stinging reports in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Arizona, accusing high-level clergy of actively covering up sexual misconduct. In two of those cases, prosecutors said they declined to bring criminal charges when the local church agreed to compensate victims and submit to oversight of church functions by law enforcement.

In Cincinnati, officials did not charge any individuals, but the church pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor of failing to report sexually abusive priests. The case was settled without a trial, and remains the only instance in which an abuse investigation reached farther than individual molesters.

In Los Angeles, some victims and their advocates would like to see church officials held accountable.

“No one who is familiar with the facts really believes that Cardinal Roger Mahony is innocent,” said John Manley, an attorney for several people who said they were abused by priests. “The question is, does the D.A.'s office have the moral courage to ... do the right thing if the evidence leads him there?”

Church officials, on the other hand, say there is no basis for such prosecutions to even be considered.

“I have reviewed numerous files and I see no evidence of a chargeable case against any individual in the hierarchy of the Los Angeles Archdiocese,” said Donald Steier, the lawyer for Baker and other priests accused of molestations.

J. Michael Hennigan, the attorney for Mahony and the archdiocese, agreed. “Accuse people of naivete. Accuse people of optimism. Accuse people of believing the acts of contrition of a bad guy. But complicity, not a chance.”

Conspiracy has a high bar.

“The mental state is very high; you have to enter into an agreement that you will commit a crime,” said N. William Delker, the senior assistant attorney general in New Hampshire who directed the grand jury investigation there. “The reality is, I don’t think any of the hierarchy in New Hampshire ... went into this wanting priests to abuse children. They knew there was a problem that priests couldn’t control their behavior. But it was not their purpose to have the priests go back and re-offend.”

No bishop was called before a grand jury in New Hampshire -- in contrast to Philadelphia, where the church says its former cardinal was called 10 times. Despite a report stating that two cardinals acted to protect abusive priests, a combination of legal hurdles, including expired statutes of limitations, meant the prelates “will never face the penalties they deserve,” Philadelphia Dist. Atty. Lynne Abraham said last year.

Charles F. Gallagher, a homicide prosecutor who ran the Philadelphia grand jury, said his investigation was also hampered by the statute of limitations.

In Phoenix, the facts could have “possibly” supported an obstruction of justice charge, but Richard Romley, the prosecutor, said he decided instead to make a deal under which the church agreed to reform and submit to civil oversight.

“The ultimate goal was to stop the abuse,” Romley, now in private law practice, said in a recent interview. “I felt that rather than one charge against Bishop [Thomas J.] O’Brien, it would have been better to see that the church changed the way it did business. That was the balancing.”

Twenty years ago this month, Baker, 58, went to Mahony and told him that he had a problem.

Church officials sent the priest, who was known as a gregarious and popular leader credited with bringing congregations together and taking an active interest in youth groups, to a residential center in New Mexico that treated priests accused of molestation.

When he returned from treatment, church officials restricted Baker from one-on-one contact with minors. And they decided Baker could do “specialized ministry not related to children and youth,” according to a letter Mahony wrote to priests in 2002, in which he apologized for improperly handling the case.

Nevertheless, six of the nine rectories where Baker lived from 1987 until he was removed from ministry six years ago were next to elementary schools.

The church has formally and repeatedly admitted its errors in supervising Baker. The belief that Baker had reformed, and reliance on his word, was a “terrible mistake,” according to the church. The archdiocese acknowledged it was “wrong” to transfer Baker without notifying his new parish of his past offenses.

In 2000, two brothers alleged that Baker molested them beginning when they were 5 and 7 and continuing for more than a decade. Baker was removed from ministry and defrocked, and the brothers received a $1.3-million settlement, paid for by the archdiocese, its insurers and Baker.

In January, Baker was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport as he returned from a vacation in Thailand. He is in jail. As part of its investigation, the district attorney’s office had sought personnel files for Baker.

Mahony’s long battle over access to the files seemed to at least one attorney for several people who accused priests of abuse to be a sign that the files contained information the church wanted to hide.

“I don’t think there would be such a fight if there wasn’t stuff in them,” said Kathy Freeberg.

Since the Dec. 1 settlement announcement, Mahony has stressed that the church is moving forward to bring closure, both financial and emotional, to the dark chapter of the sexual abuse scandal.

The $60-million settlement, which both sides say they hope will be finalized soon, covers all of the cases involving molestations that occurred since Mahony was named head of the diocese in 1985. The cases include claims related to Baker.