Popular ex-priest hid dark side

San Gabriel Tribune/November 18, 2007

He was known as Father Mike, a popular priest at St. Hilary in Pico Rivera and at St. Paul of the Cross in La Mirada.

But Michael Stephen Baker hid a dark side.

The ex-priest once admitted to having relationships with boys. Children in parishes he served accused him of molesting them as far back as 1974.

Since last year, the defrocked clergyman has been in a Los Angeles County jail as a second molestation case against him winds its way through the courts.

Prosecutors allege that the 59-year-old Long Beach man molested two boys from 1994 to 1998 while assigned to churches in Pico Rivera and Los Angeles. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges and will return to Los Angeles Superior Court on Nov. 30 for a hearing.

Baker is being held at Men's Central Jail in lieu of $800,000 bail.

"I don't say anything," Baker's lawyer, Donald Steier, said when asked for comment on the case.

Baker is one of the more infamous priests in the Los Angeles Archdiocese accused of sexually abusing children. Cardinal Roger Mahony was criticized for the way he handled Baker's case.

Baker was assigned to work, with restrictions, at different parishes after he admitted to Mahony in 1986 that he had a relationship with two boys for seven years.

The archdiocese sent him for treatment in New Mexico in 1987. A year later, it allowed him to work at various parishes.

But Baker allegedly continued to molest children.

In 2000, the archdiocese settled for $1.25million with two brothers who accused Baker of molesting them in locations in Mexico, Arizona and California from 1984 to 1999.

Baker, who paid $500,000 of the settlement, met them while he was priest at St. Hilary in Pico Rivera.

Mahony began the process of removing Baker from the priesthood when Baker petitioned to leave the priesthood. His request was granted in December 2000.

The reported molestation of one of the brothers would lead prosecutors to file a criminal case against Baker in 2006. The second alleged victim in the current criminal case is a boy Baker met while at a Los Angeles church, sheriff's detectives said.

"The cardinal admits that he made mistakes with Michael Baker," said Tod Tamberg, spokesman for the Los Angeles Archdiocese. "Looking back in hindsight, the cardinal was naive. He thought at the time something like this could be treated with psychotherapy."

Tamberg called Baker "the worst kind of child molester" and said Baker lied about the nature and extent of his problem.

"He never came forward and said he molested children. On the surface while he looked like he was complying with restrictions, he was not," Tamberg said.

Tamberg said Baker mischaracterized and lied about the nature of his problem to Mahony and the therapist.

"When he made this half-hearted, insincere, inaccurate revelation (in 1986), he was taken from the ministry," Tamberg said.

He added that Baker was then sent to treatment and, based on the report from this treatment, he returned to the archdiocese in a limited capacity.

"Back in those days only priests were allowed to sign checks. He would go to parishes, sign checks for day-to-day business. He was never a pastor again. He had restrictions," Tamberg said.

But Baker violated his restrictions in 1989, 1995 and 1996 by having contact with minors. These were not sexual in nature, according to a report by the archdiocese.

After the third incident, he was transferred in 1997 to St. Camillus de Lellis in Los Angeles.

"Its only parishioners are in-patients at (Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center)," the archdiocese report noted.

Church officials said they didn't get a victim complaint about Baker until 2000 and removed him from the ministry soon after.

Four years later, the archdiocese listed in a report that Baker had 23 accusers from incidents starting in 1974 and ending in 1999. Baker was ordained as a priest in 1974.

Tamberg isn't sure if there are more than 23 alleged victims.

"We put in what we know at the time," he said.

Sheriff's detectives estimate there could be up to 28 victims.

This summer, the archdiocese settled with more than 500 alleged victims of clergy abuse for $660million.

Frank Zamora, 62, of La Mirada said his younger son, Dominic, was one of those plaintiffs. He said his son was an altar boy at St. Paul of the Cross in La Mirada and was allegedly molested by Baker from ages 7 to 14.

Baker would attend gatherings at the Zamora home. He was known to take kids in the parish to McDonald's.

Frank Zamora said his son started drinking at an early age and lost his faith because of the alleged abuse. The Zamoras were unaware of what happened to their son until he told them four or five years ago.

Dominic Zamora was in county jail for having unpaid traffic tickets when he spotted a familiar face in the lockup.

"He called, `Baker is in here and I will tell you something,"' said his mother, Virginia.

She said Baker was called "Father Mike" when he was at St. Paul and popular.

"Oh, big time. He was popular with everybody. He still has followers," she added. "To me, he was a wolf in sheep's clothing."

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