A former priest allowed to remain in ministry after telling Cardinal Roger M. Mahony that he had molested children was arrested Thursday on suspicion of committing lewd acts with a child in the 1990s, with deputies taking him into custody as he disembarked from a plane at Los Angeles International Airport.
The arrest caps a four-year effort by prosecutors to build a case against Michael Stephen Baker, who authorities said ranks among the most prolific alleged abusers in the church. More than 20 people told the Los Angeles Archdiocese that Baker had molested them during his 26 years as a priest.
Mahony has said that Baker's case is one "that troubles me the most."
Baker told Mahony in 1986 that he had molested children, according to the archdiocese and Baker. Mahony did not alert police, but sent Baker for treatment, after which the priest was assigned to a series of nine other parishes.
Baker was about to stand trial in 2003 on different molestation charges. But his case and those of nearly a dozen accused priests were thrown out after the U.S. Supreme Court barred the revival of decades-old childhood sexual abuse prosecutions.
Thursday's arrest involves a molestation case that authorities say took place within the statute of limitations. It involves allegations that Baker sexually assaulted a young boy, now 27, in the rectory of a church somewhere in Los Angeles County.
The alleged victim and his brother have received a $1.3-million settlement from the archdiocese, its insurers and Baker, who contributed $500,000.
Baker was taken into custody as he returned from a trip to Thailand and Nepal. At the same time, deputies served search warrants at his Huntington Beach and La Mirada residences.
Sources familiar with the case said that for the last few months, investigators have kept tabs on the former priest's whereabouts, fearing that he might flee the jurisdiction before the case is ready for charging.
"We'd completed our investigation and we knew it was a safe and effective place to make the arrest," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Sgt. Dan Scott said.
The district's attorney's office said it expected to file formal charges Monday. Baker was being held in jail Thursday in lieu of $1-million bail.
In their civil suit, the brothers alleged that Baker began abusing them at St. Hilary Catholic Church in Pico Rivera in 1984 when they were 5 and 7. The boys' family moved to Mexico in 1986, but Baker over the next 13 years flew them to Los Angeles, Palm Springs and Arizona, where the abuse allegedly continued until 1999, at least once in the priest's rectory in Los Angeles County.
Sources familiar with the current case said officials until late 2004 had struggled to contact the brothers and only last year managed extensive interviews with them. It was then that Los Angeles prosecutors obtained U.S. visas so the brothers could be interviewed in Arizona, according to the brothers' attorney and law enforcement sources.
Attorney Donald Steier, who represents Baker, said he was "thoroughly familiar with the allegation" but questioned the timing of the arrest, which coincided with jury selection in a child-molestation trial of a retired priest, Michael Edwin Wempe.
"Why did they choose to make the arrest now?" Steier asked, adding that Baker was returning home from an overseas vacation, not leaving the country.
Baker told The Times in 2001 that he had informed Mahony of his sexual attraction to children in 1986.
"I told Mahony I had a problem," he said.
Mahony did not ask for specifics and appeared willing to let him remain in the priesthood, Baker said. "He was very solicitous and understanding. I was glad I brought it up."
Mahony sent Baker for residential treatment at a New Mexico facility that treated priests for sexual abuse and other problems. After Baker returned to the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Mahony required the priest to attend counseling and placed him in positions where he was restricted from one-on-one contact with minors, the archdiocese said. Six of the nine rectories where he was placed were next to elementary schools.
Baker violated his restrictions three times by being alone with minors but continued in ministry, according to summaries of church personnel files provided by the archdiocese.
Mahony removed Baker from ministry in 2000, at the time of the confidential settlement, but did not notify police until 2003.
Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for Mahony, said Thursday that the archbishop did the best he could with information he had at the time.
"Baker was a classic example of how deceptive these kinds of people are. He lied to the archbishop about the nature and extent of his problem, he deceived his therapists, and he deceived the young people who trusted him," Tamberg said. "That is the nature of this compulsion. This wasn't known in 1986. We know it now."
The newest accuser, now living in Tucson, was "very, very happy" to learn that Baker had been arrested, said his attorney, Lynne Cadigan. He had met with prosecutors in Los Angeles the day before the arrest. He declined to comment on the arrest, on his lawyer's advice.
Matt Severson, whose alleged molestation resulted in the criminal charges that were thrown out in 2003 because of the Supreme Court ruling, said he was pleased about Baker's arrest.
"I think the most important thing is that on some level he's being held responsible for the acts that he did, even if they are not mine," he said. "Even if it is just this one, symbolically, it's huge."