Cardinal in Los Angeles Says He Let Abuser Remain a Priest

New York Times/May 17, 2002
By James Sterngold

Los Angeles -- Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, who has maintained that he dealt firmly with any sexual abuse accusations against priests here in his archdiocese, has now acknowledged that he allowed one to remain in the ministry after that priest told him in 1986 that he had molested some boys.

The priest, the Rev. Michael Stephen Baker, was moved from one parish to another after that conversation with Cardinal Mahony 16 years ago, and was later accused of engaging in subsequent sexual abuse of boys.

Even after two brothers told the archdiocese two years ago that Father Baker had plied them with alcohol and abused them for 15 years, Cardinal Mahony did not report the accusations to the police or apparently seek to find out if the priest had molested additional boys. At the hint of a lawsuit, the archdiocese agreed to a $1.3 million settlement with the brothers in 2000, and Father Baker was forced to retire.

Disclosure of the sequence of events, reported today in The Los Angeles Times, has infuriated some law enforcement officials here, who say Cardinal Mahony has repeatedly assured them that he will hand over all documents related to sexual abuse cases but in fact has not surrendered any of them.

An exasperated District Attorney Steve Cooley sent a letter to the cardinal today, the latest in a series, suggesting that he had failed to live up to his promise and that unless all documents were handed over, prosecutors would take the matter to a grand jury.

Tod Tamberg, a spokesman for the archdiocese, said that the church was cooperating with all investigations and would continue to do so.

With the publication of the newspaper account at hand, Cardinal Mahony issued a letter to priests in the archdiocese on Tuesday, saying that when he learned of Father Baker's sexual abuse in 1986, he responded by sending him to therapy. The cardinal said he was unaware of any further indications of abuse by Father Baker until 2000, when the two brothers contacted the archdiocese. At that point, he said, he forced Father Baker to retire.

But one person close to the case said the archdiocese had not sought to learn from the priest whether he might have molested other children.

In his letter, the cardinal said: "I offer my sincere, personal apologies for my failure to take firm and decisive action much earlier. If I have caused you or your parishioners additional grief by my handling of the Baker case, I ask your forgiveness."

Father Baker, now 54, has not been charged with any crime. He did not return phone messages today, and his lawyer, Donald Steier, would not comment.

Cardinal Mahony has said he has always been open with investigators. But in an e-mail message to senior archdiocesan officials on March 30, Sister Judy Murphy, a lawyer for the archdiocese, wrote that the cardinal had resisted disclosing Father Baker's name to the police, in spite of a promise that he would identify any priest accused of sexual abuse.

"He was reluctant about B," said the electronic message, publicly disclosed recently after being given anonymously to a local radio station.

In addition to the two brothers whose case has been settled, another man today accused Father Baker of abusing him, over a 10-year period.

That man, Matt Severson, 34, described the priest as a methodical predator who first befriended young Matt's parents before pressuring the boy, starting when he was 9, into numerous overnight visits to the rectory and elsewhere. There, Mr. Severson said, the priest gave him alcohol and then molested him.

Mr. Severson said that his mother had gone to work for Father Baker and that he had hinted to her that there had been inappropriate behavior and that he no longer wanted the overnight visits. But, he said, Father Baker insisted, and his mother urged him to continue, somewhat fearful that her job might be at stake.

There were similar circumstances in the case of the two brothers who reached the settlement, said their lawyer, Lynne M. Cadigan of Tucson. Ms. Cadigan said that Father Baker had not only made the family financially dependent on him but also paid to move the family from Los Angeles to Arizona, where he would visit the boys and take them on vacations, abusing them on those occasions.

She said the brothers, whom she described as now 24 and 22 years old and living in Mexico, decided to come forward two years ago out of concern that Father Baker was abusing other boys.

Mr. Severson said he was angrier now at Cardinal Mahony than at Father Baker.

"There's a sense," he said, "that the church is much more concerned with its image and preserving its patriarchal structure than anything else."

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