Retired LA Catholic Priest Ordered to Stand Trial on Molestation Charges

San Francisco Chronicle [Downey CA]
April 16, 2003

A retired Catholic priest accused of molesting an altar boy throughout much of the 1970s and '80s must stand trial on nearly 30 counts of sexual abuse.

Rejecting defense efforts to dismiss the case, Superior Court Commissioner Burt Barnett ordered Michael Stephen Baker to return to court April 30 for arraignment.

"There (are) a lot of things I'd like to say but I can't say," Baker, 55, told reporters outside court after Tuesday's hearing. He said his attorney had advised him to keep quiet.

Baker, who is free on bond, faces 13 counts of lewd acts upon a child under 14 and 16 counts of oral copulation with a minor. Authorities say he also remains under investigation in the alleged molestations of at least nine youths dating to 1976.

Defense attorney Donald Steier had asked Barnett to dismiss the charges, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to show "serious sexual misconduct," the standard required for an extension of the statute of limitations on such crimes.

Baker's alleged victim, Matthew Severson, now 35, had testified Monday that the retired priest had sent him intimate notes apologizing and professing his love. Severson also read from the notes.

"I think it's hard to say what that is an admission to," Baker's attorney argued Tuesday.

But the commissioner countered: "If it's not a confession it is certainly an admission of misconduct."

Severson, a movie archivist who is completing work toward a doctorate degree in critical studies in film at the University of Southern California, estimated Baker molested him at least 168 times before he turned 18, although he said he did not have specific memories of most of the incidents.

What Severson said he does remember specifically is spending the night in the same bed as Baker and watching movies. He said one of the films he watched with the retired priest, 1979's "Kramer vs Kramer," triggers a "gut reaction" whenever he sees or thinks about it.

Severson allegedly was abused while he was an altar boy in the rectory of churches in the Los Angeles suburbs of La Mirada and Pico Rivera and allegedly in a Palm Desert condominium. He says the abuse began when he was 7 or 8 years old.

He testified that he perceived Baker as an authority figure, adding it never occurred to him to report the acts to police. He said it was not until last year, a few days after Easter, that he came to believe he had a social responsibility to tell authorities.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, who leads the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, transferred Baker to several parishes after the priest allegedly told him in 1986 that he had molested young boys. The cardinal later approved a secret $1.3 million settlement to two men allegedly abused by Baker in the 1990s.

Mahony arranged for Baker to retire from the priesthood in 2000.


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