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Two Former L.A.-Area Priests Are Arrested

Church: They allegedly molested children years ago. A warrant is issued for a third cleric.

September 26, 2002|RICHARD WINTON and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Authorities arrested two former Catholic priests Wednesday on charges that they sexually molested children during their tenure in Los Angeles-area churches and issued an arrest warrant for a third priest after unexpectedly discovering the 82-year-old retiree had left the country on a cruise.

The arrests, the first in Los Angeles County since the Roman Catholic scandal that broke nine months ago, signal the start of more than a dozen planned prosecutions of former Los Angeles Archdiocese priests considered by investigators to be the worst offenders.

"It doesn't matter who is accused of molesting children, we are going to do our best to bring them to justice," said Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott.

The three priests targeted Wednesday are accused of molesting more than 20 girls and boys--as young as 8 years old--between the late 1940s and the mid-1980s, police officials say.

Taken into custody by the Los Angeles Police Department early Wednesday was Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 46, on a single count of molesting a 12-year-old altar boy between 1985 and 1987. Bail was set at $400,000.

The law enforcement operation then took a chaotic turn when authorities could not find two of the men, who had both been under investigation for months.

Michael Stephen Baker, 54, was arrested eight hours after sheriff's investigators began looking for him. Baker, who admitted to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in 1986 that he had molested boys, was booked on suspicion of child sexual abuse and held on $1-million bail.

The LAPD also was seeking to determine the whereabouts at sea of G. Neville Rucker, a retired priest who, authorities say, is accused of molestation by 16 girls.

The action came a day after a former Orange County priest was arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing a teenage girl in the 1970s. Sheriff's deputies engaged in a sting operation taped him making an alleged confession to an undercover officer. He believed the officer was his grown daughter by a then-teenage parishioner.

The push for criminal prosecution marks a turning point in the nationwide molestation scandal in the Catholic Church that has seen top church officials--including Mahony--conceding that they knew about abuse of children by troubled priests for decades but did not inform local law enforcement authorities.

In some instances, including the cases of Rucker and Baker, church officials instead chose to transfer the alleged offenders from parish to parish.

The move by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to prosecute the priests--and his expressed intent to pursue many more cases--was praised by alleged victims and their attorneys.

"This is another step toward accountability and prevention," said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul., Minn., attorney who represents alleged victims of Baker. "Now we want justice."

Church officials in Los Angeles, who have had a testy relationship with Cooley over his pursuit of personnel files of alleged abusers and their past handling of molesters in their ranks, expressed sorrow over the charges and said they hoped for a quick resolution.

"My heart aches with the pain and suffering endured by victims of sexual abuse by clergy," Mahony said in a prepared statement. "The archdiocese will continue to reach out to all victims and their families with pastoral care and counseling."

Ongoing Investigation

Cooley issued a brief statement Wednesday saying the investigation is ongoing.

"It is expected that the suspects arrested today will be charged and arraigned in court within the next 48 hours," he said, adding his office had been working closely with the LAPD and the L.A. County Sheriff's Department on the case. Prosecutors would not detail the evidence they plan to present. Crimes dating back as far as the allegations in the priests' cases require clear and convincing contemporary corroboration, officials said, and can be difficult to prove.

But there was clearly confusion Wednesday on the part of authorities over the whereabouts of two of the suspects.

Investigators had mistakenly believed Rucker, one of seven priests removed from the ministry earlier this year by Mahony under a retroactive "zero-tolerance" policy for molesters, would be available to turn himself in by noon Wednesday at LAPD headquarters.

Instead, officials learned Wednesday morning from Rucker's lawyer, Donald Steier, that his client had "left the country" on a cruise a week ago.

LAPD officials, who said Rucker has been accused of molesting 16 girls while serving in parishes in Los Angeles, East Los Angeles and El Segundo between 1947 and 1979, downplayed the significance of his absence.

"When the D.A. called to arrange that this morning, Rucker was on vacation out of the country. He is not considered a fugitive," said LAPD Cmdr. Gary Brennan.

Brennan said the retired priest had not been under day-to-day surveillance.

"There was nothing to suggest he needed to be watched," Brennan said.

"We aren't going to send out the Coast Guard."

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