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Former Priest Faces 5 More Charges of Sex With A Minor

May 1, 2003 | AP

Five additional felony sex abuse charges were filed Wednesday against a former priest who could become one of the first clerics in California to be tried for sexual abuse.

Michael Stephen Baker, 55, now faces a total of 34 felony charges after five counts of oral copulation with a minor were filed by prosecutors.

After a preliminary hearing two weeks ago, Baker was ordered to stand trial for allegedly molesting an altar boy throughout much of the 1970s and '80s.

Baker, who is free on bond, appeared in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk earlier Wednesday but his arraignment was postponed until May 20 after his lawyer, Donald Steier, asked for more time to review the transcripts of the preliminary hearing.

Baker was previously ordered to stand trial on 13 counts of lewd acts upon a child under 14 and 16 counts of oral copulation with a minor. Authorities said he also remains under investigation in the alleged molestations of at least nine youths dating to 1976.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the District Attorney's Office, said the latest charges will be tacked on to the existing criminal complaint.

The new counts stem from testimony during the preliminary hearing by alleged victim Matthew Severson, who said Baker had sent him intimate notes apologizing and professing his love.

Severson estimated that Baker had molested him at least 168 times before he turned 18, although he said he did not have specific memories of most of the incidents.

Steier said it was unlikely that a jury would be swayed by the five new charges. "When Mr. Severson was testifying he estimated a lot of different things. They don't carry a lot of weight," Steier said. "He was unable to provide specifics."

The alleged abuse occurred while Severson 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 when he was 7 or 8 years old.

Baker has declined comment, saying his attorney had advised him to keep quiet.

Priest to stay retired

In a separate case, a priest accused but not charged with molesting a young boy three decades ago will not return to active ministry in the San Bernardino Diocese, church officials said.

The agreement between the diocese and retired Rev. Peter Covas came after current church leaders learned he had twice been arrested in the 1980s on suspicion of misdemeanor public sexual misconduct.

Bishop Phillip Straling, then head of the diocese, had been aware of the arrests but handled the matter "externally" and placed no records of the incidents in Covas' personnel file, the Rev. Howard Lincoln, a spokesman for the diocese, said Wednesday.

Straling, who now heads the Catholic Diocese of Reno, was not immediately available for comment.

In a private meeting with Bishop Gerald Barnes, the current leader of the diocese, Covas said he would not seek reinstatement to active ministry, officials said.

"Recent developments brought Father Covas to the conclusion that for his own good and for the good of the church, he would continue with his retirement and no longer be involved in ministry," Lincoln told a newspaper.

Covas, 71, did not return a message left with an answering service. The priest had served as pastor of St. Peter and St. Paul Catholic Church in Rancho Cucamonga from 1992 until his retirement last year.

He had been placed on administrative leave in April of 2002 after diocese officials informed police of an allegation that Covas began an intimate sexual relationship with a 14-year-old boy in the mid-1970s that continued for more than a decade as the boy became an adult.

The San Bernardino County District Attorney's Office has said there was not enough credible evidence to warrant prosecuting the priest. That prompted some parishioners to call for his reinstatement.

Diocese officials had refused to comment until Tuesday's announcement that Covas would not return.

Covas had been arrested June 4, 1987, on suspicion of masturbating in a Fontana adult bookstore, according to a Sheriff's Department report. Calls to determine the outcome of the arrest were not returned by sheriff's officials.

In another incident, Covas pleaded no contest in December 1988 to charges of disorderly and lewd conduct in public, according to Los Angeles County Superior Court records.

The records show Covas spent two days in jail, was sentenced to two years of probation and was fined $211.50 for the November 1988 incident.

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