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2 Ex-Priests Charged in Molestations

Court: Michael Baker does not enter a plea to 29 counts; Carlos Rodriguez pleads not guilty to eight. A third ex-cleric is still at large.

September 27, 2002|RICHARD WINTON, ANNA GORMAN and MEGAN GARVEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Stating that no profession is beyond the law, prosecutors charged two former Roman Catholic priests Thursday with multiple counts of molesting children in parishes where they served.

The charges marked the first tangible results of a nine-month investigation of Roman Catholic clerical sexual misconduct in Los Angeles. Another priest--an elderly retiree reportedly on an overseas cruise--is being sought by authorities.

"Today's filings are part of the continuing effort to hold accountable those priests who have abused their positions of trust and victimized others," Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said in a statement.

"No profession or occupation is immune from civil authority and the operation of the criminal justice system," Cooley said.

If convicted, the former priests charged Thursday could be sentenced to lengthy prison time. Michael Stephen Baker, 54, faces up to 26 years in prison and Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 46, a maximum of 22 years if convicted on all counts.

"I am beyond excited," said a 34-year-old West Hollywood man who alleged in a lawsuit filed earlier this year that he is one of Baker's victims. "The day of judgment has finally come for him. I and other victims will get our day in court."

Investigators said the cases are the first of more than a dozen planned prosecutions of priests and former priests alleged to have sexually molested children during their tenures in local parishes.

Law enforcement officials said Thursday that the investigations are continuing.

"We hope our arrest of any child abuse suspect will help other victims to have the comfort level to come forward," said Los Angeles Police Capt. Sharyn Buck, who said two more alleged victims had contacted police Thursday. "There are possible victims out there who have watched this from afar, and they are seeing these arrests and can see we're doing something."

In an austere courtroom in Downey, Baker--who is being held on $1-million bail--stood handcuffed in jail clothes and gave one- or two-word answers to questions posed by court officials.

He appeared slightly overweight, with graying hair and a mustache. In 1986, Baker admitted to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony that he had molested boys. After his admission, Baker was sent for treatment and later transferred to nine different parishes.

He left the priesthood in 2000, shortly after he and the Los Angeles Archdiocese paid $1.3 million to settle a lawsuit brought by two Mexican brothers who alleged that the priest had molested them over 15 years, ending in 1999.

Baker did not enter a plea Thursday to the 29 counts filed against him for abuse of a boy between 1976 and 1985. He was charged with 13 counts of committing a lewd act upon a child, and 16 counts of oral copulation. Prosecutors alleged that the abuse began when the victim was 9.

"This is the best case we have right now, but we very much anticipate more victims will come forward as they read and hear about these charges," said district attorney's office spokeswoman Jane Robison.

Baker's attorney, Donald Steier, asked Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Ross Klein to postpone that arraignment until Oct. 17. He said he will legally challenge the sufficiency of the charges, which he called "creative writing." Steier also argued that the $1-million bail was unreasonable.

"The defendant is a lifelong resident of the area. There is only one victim here," Steier said. He said the number of counts against his client had grown from 13 listed in the arrest warrant Wednesday to 29 Thursday.

The man whom prosecutors allege Baker molested said Thursday that the charges have been a "long time coming."

The man said he was abused repeatedly by Baker at St. Paul of the Cross Church in La Mirada, according to a lawsuit he and several others filed earlier this year.

He said prosecutors have asked that he not discuss specific events. Previously he told The Times that Baker would arrange to have him spend the night at the St. Paul rectory and that the abuse started off "very subtly" and then progressed.

Rodriguez, who resigned from the priesthood in 1993, was arraigned Thursday afternoon in a courtroom in downtown Los Angeles on eight counts of committing lewd acts upon a child under the age of 14.

Handcuffed and standing behind a glass wall, Rodriguez pleaded not guilty.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Hilleri Merritt wrote in the complaint that there is independent evidence--another witness--that "clearly and convincingly corroborates the victim's allegations" that he was sexually molested by Rodriguez.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Commissioner Jeffrey M. Harkavy set a preliminary hearing for Oct. 8. He set bail at $400,000.

Merritt said there are three additional potential victims, two who allegedly were abused in Santa Barbara and a third in Arizona. The third victim witnessed the alleged crimes in Los Angeles and will be called to testify at the preliminary hearing, she said.

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