A former Roman Catholic priest said in court Wednesday that the rights of homosexuals have been violated by a state law that makes it easier to prosecute gay pedophiles than heterosexual child molesters.
It apparently was the first time that gay rights had been introduced into the ongoing prosecution of current and former Catholic priests alleged to have molested children.
The state law in question imposes no time limits on prosecuting heterosexuals who force intercourse. But gays are subject to prosecution for sex acts with a child without limit regardless of whether the allegations involved forced or consensual sex.
Defrocked priest Michael Stephen Baker, 59, said the provision denies equal protection of the law to gay people. He cited a provision of the U.S. Constitution that has been used to advance racial and gender equality.
Baker, appearing in court with a trimmed gray beard, is awaiting trial for allegedly molesting two boys -- one who was unconscious -- during weekend Catholic youth trips.
Baker's case is the one Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has said "troubles" him the most. Baker confessed to Mahony his interest in children 20 years ago. He was sent for treatment, allegedly molested more children, and was defrocked by Mahony in 2000.
Baker's lawyer, Donald H. Steier, pointed to a state Supreme Court decision last year that struck down a provision of the law that required gay child offenders to register for life while imposing less stringent registration requirements on heterosexual offenders.
A staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, the premier group lobbying for the legal rights of gays, said the sexual orientation of an abuser is irrelevant.
"People don't have the right to abuse children regardless of their sexual orientation," said Tara Borelli, a Lambda staff attorney. "Abuse by a gay priest isn't a gay issue; it's about abuse of power."
Baker is awaiting trial on 13 charges of molesting the two boys from 1994 to 1998.
"Had [Baker] been engaged in heterosexual intercourse with a female of the same age, he could not have been charged," Steier said.
Steier suggested that Baker's victims consented to the contacts -- a claim that prosecutors denounced.
"To characterize sexual contact between a priest and a student as consensual, let alone as 'consensual, mutual, gentle, homosexual contact' or a 'romantic relationship' as the defense does, is not only profoundly inappropriate, but odious and offensive," according to court papers filed by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley's office.
Five years ago, Baker was charged with molesting an altar boy at St. Paul of the Cross Church in La Mirada. But that case and a dozen others Cooley had filed were dropped after a U.S. Supreme Court decision voided a California law that allowed the prosecution of older child abuse cases.
The church investigated the current case -- though one of the youths denied any improprieties -- in 1996, according to a lawyer for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Baker is charged with sex with a minor, and sex with a boy who was unconscious.