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Ex-Altar Boy Alleges Priest Abused Him

May 21, 2002 | The Los Angeles Times

A former altar boy alleged in court papers filed Monday that he was molested at a Van Nuys church by Father Michael Stephen Baker, bringing to three the number of victims who say they were abused after the priest admitted engaging in sexual misconduct to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

The lawsuit alleges that Baker abused at least a dozen young boys between 1975 and 1999. The complaint, filed under a federal racketeering law, states that Mahony and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles failed to keep Baker away from children after his admission, did not report the abuse to authorities and paid money to victims to keep the misconduct secret.

"Cardinal Roger Mahony belongs in prison for aiding and abetting Michael Baker, for protecting a pedophile priest," attorney Jeffrey Anderson told reporters outside the Los Angeles Superior Courthouse after filing the suit. "The deception has to end.... We have come forward to say: no more secrets, no more crimes." Mahony called the racketeering suit "baseless and irresponsible" in a statement released Monday.

"I will not let these claims distract me from continuing to focus all of my energies on ... reaching out to victims of clergy abuse and their families, assisting with their spiritual and emotional healing, and expanding our programs to protect children throughout the archdiocese," the statement said.

Baker and his attorney, Donald Steier, could not be reached for comment Monday. In previous interviews, Baker acknowledged telling Mahony in a 1986 meeting that he had abused "two or three" children. Baker said the cardinal did not press him for details and he did not provide any.

The Times reported last week that Mahony transferred Baker to nine parishes after learning about the priest's history of sex abuse and later approved a secret $1.3-million settlement to two men. The victims' attorney, Lynne M. Cadigan of Tucson, said the archdiocese insisted on a strict confidentiality clause.

Mahony arranged for Baker to quietly retire from the priesthood in late 2000 without notifying law enforcement authorities or informing parishioners about the alleged abuses.

The two victims, who are brothers in their 20s now living in Mexico, alleged in a letter of complaint to the archdiocese that they had been repeatedly molested by Baker over 15 years. The Times does not identify victims of sexual abuse without their consent.

The third purported victim to emerge since Mahony learned of Baker's abuse is identified in the lawsuit only as "John Doe 53." He was raised in a devoutly Roman Catholic family and served as an altar boy at St. Elisabeth parish in Van Nuys, according to the suit.

The abuse began in 1990 when the altar boy was 12 or 13 years old and continued for about three years, said attorney Anderson.

"This happened after Baker's cozy chat with Mahony," Anderson said. "What did [Mahony] do with that? Nothing.... All of these victims suffered in secrecy, silence and sham."

Archdiocese records show that Baker lived at St. Elisabeth from 1988 to 1991. The pastor at the time, Father Paul Hruby, said he knew of no allegations against Baker of sexual abuse during Baker's time there. Hruby declined to say whether archdiocese officials informed him of Baker's history when the priest was assigned to the Van Nuys parish.

Monday's lawsuit was filed on behalf of the former altar boy and three other men.

One of the four men appeared at the press conference Monday. Matt Severson, 34, of West Hollywood claimed that Baker abused him for a decade, beginning in 1976 when he was 9.

"I did not have a voice at that time," Severson said. "I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. I felt great humiliation and pain."

Severson, called "John Doe 50" in the lawsuit, said he came forward to "reclaim some of the power that was taken away from me as a child.... I want an apology, not just for me but for my family. My family was very devastated."

The suit is the second in which Anderson has cited racketeering laws against Mahony and the archdiocese. He has also sued under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act on behalf of alleged victims of Father Carl Sutphin, an associate pastor at the new downtown cathedral until his recent removal from the ministry.

Anderson alleges that Mahony's actions amount to a pattern of illegal activity. RICO lawsuits allow damage awards to be tripled.

Mahony said last week he will turn over records to the district attorney's office on the Baker case and all others, as necessary. Regarding Baker's files, Mahony said, "We told [LAPD detectives] whatever they wanted, they could have."

In response to the story in The Times last week, Los Angeles County District Atty. Steve Cooley warned the cardinal that he would seek a grand jury investigation unless the Los Angeles archdiocese turned over all documents related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests.

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