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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.

By Richard Winton, Anna Gorman and Megan Garvey, Times Staff writers September 27, 2002

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.

Merritt said the alleged abuse against the victim in that case occurred at "various places within the county of Los Angeles" but not at St. Vincent de Paul Church on West Adams, where Rodriguez was assigned at the time.

Deputy Public Defender David Rice, who represented Rodriguez at the arraignment, declined to comment about the charges, saying only, "The plea speaks for itself."

A third priest accused of child sexual abuse, who left a week ago on a monthlong cruise, was still being sought. Law enforcement officials said they are working out a plan to arrest retired priest G. Neville Rucker, 82.

Officials said they know his itinerary and are assessing their options on how to apprehend Rucker, who is wanted on a felony arrest warrant. LAPD officers contacted Steier, who also represents Rucker, Wednesday morning and asked that Rucker turn himself in at police headquarters by noon. Steier informed them that his client was out of the country.

"He's traveling across the top of the world," said one law enforcement official, who added that Rucker's next port of call is believed to be in Russia.

Steier, who as of Thursday had not spoken to Rucker, said his client was "on vacation, he's not a fugitive."

Arthur Goldberg, an attorney who represents four people who have sued Rucker, said he can't believe the former priest was allowed to go on a cruise.

"I think it's utterly disgusting," he said.

Steier contended again Thursday that law enforcement officials had mishandled the arrests of Rucker and Baker, who he said would have surrendered voluntarily if given prior notice.

Baker was apprehended at a La Mirada residence about eight hours after sheriff's deputies first tried to take him into custody at his downtown Long Beach apartment. Steier said he was on his way to surrender at the time.

The prosecutions raise the possibility that church officials, including Mahony, may be called to testify.

Although there is a 10-year limit on prosecution of most types of molestation, no time limit applies for the most serious sex crimes against children 15 and younger.

Such instances, involving crimes such as rape and oral copulation, require clear and convincing contemporary corroborating evidence, such as admissions to another person, diaries or letters.

Attorney J. Michael Hennigan said Thursday that as the prosecution proceeds, the Los Angeles Archdiocese will continue to be "cooperative in any way possible with law enforcement."

Hennigan said church officials would be willing to testify without being subpoenaed, but he did not anticipate that they would be called to court.

"As far as we are aware, there is no useful information that would help either the prosecutors or the priests," he said.

Hennigan said it was unlikely that any of the former priests would be of any help to the ongoing criminal prosecution.

"I can't imagine that any one of these priests would be useful to any other's case," he said. "I imagine that all of these activities were done in the strictest of secrecy."

Copyright Š 2002, The Los Angeles Times

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