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Four Sue Cardinal Over Sexual Abuse

May 21, 2002 | AP

Four men filed a racketeering lawsuit against Cardinal Roger Mahony that accuses him of protecting a priest who allegedly molested several children in the nation's largest archdiocese.

The suit, which seeks unspecified damages, cites federal laws involving conspiracy in a criminal enterprise. It was filed Monday in a state court.

The filing includes snapshots from a family album that tell the story of a friendship between a boy and his priest: 9-year-old altar boy Matthew Severson posing after mass with the Rev. Michael Baker, the two at Matthew's confirmation, the boy on the priest's lap at a family party.

Severson, now 34, alleges that the priest sexually abused him for 10 years.

"I'm doing this to try and heal myself and my family," he said.

In the suit, Severson and three other men say Mahony protected Baker, who had admitted to molesting children while he was assigned to the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

In a statement, Mahony called the claims "baseless and irresponsible."

"I will let the legal system address the technical issues surrounding these claims. I am confident that they will be resolved appropriately," he said.

The federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act originally was aimed at organized crime but includes provisions for civil cases when someone is harmed by a "pattern" of illegal activity. It's the second time Mahony has been sued using the RICO statute since the church abuse scandal erupted.

Baker, 54, has retired from the priesthood. He could not be located for comment by The Associated Press, but he recently told the Los Angeles Times he had informed Mahony in 1986 of his sexual misconduct with children.

Severson said the abuse started in December 1976 when Baker offered to let 9-year-old Matthew stay overnight at the rectory.

His parents liked the idea, Severson said, because the pastor was a close family friend. Severson's father often built things for Baker's church, and his mother worked in the rectory, cooking, cleaning and serving as a secretary and event organizer.

That night in December, Severson said, Baker insisted they share a bed. Severson said he remembers staring at a clock on a bedside table as his pajamas were removed and the priest's hands roamed the boy's body.

"I was horrified and I knew something was wrong," Severson said. "I was too embarrassed to tell anyone."

As the abuse continued, Severson said he tried to avoid the priest, but Baker manipulated his parents to keep the boy close to him.

"If I was too resistant or refused to be receptive or open to him in those situations, he would complain about me to my family," Severson said.

His parents, worried that their son might fall in with a bad crowd, encouraged him to spend time with Baker. When Baker moved to another parish, the family followed.

Baker has reportedly said he told Mahony about abusing children when Mahony was a bishop. Baker continued to have access to children over the next 14 years while he was assigned to nine parishes around Los Angeles. He was asked to retire in 2000.

He wrote a letter to Severson in 1994 that is now part of the court filing.

"I am so glad that you have encountered therapy and a guide who can help facilitate healing," Baker wrote. "Through my own inner journey I have realized how my own immature emotions and psycho-sexual-screwed-up-ness slashed and burned through those years of your life seeking self-satisfaction in the name of love."

Police are investigating accusations that Baker molested at least nine young people beginning in 1976. Two other men who claim they were sexually abused by Baker from 1984 to 1999 agreed to a $1.3 million settlement with the archdiocese.

In other developments related to the church abuse scandal Monday:

Cardinal Francis George said he is considering selling the mansion that has been home to Chicago's Roman Catholic archbishops for more than a century. He said some of the proceeds could be used to pay legal fees in priest sex-abuse cases.

A prosecutor's office said it has no record that the Baltimore Archdiocese alerted it in 1998 to allegations that the Rev. Maurice Blackwell had abused a boy. The archdiocese said it had notified the office of the allegations against Blackwell, who was shot last week by another alleged abuse victim.

A priest on the Hawaiian island of Maui was placed on administrative leave over alleged sexual misconduct that occurred more than 20 years ago.

Nineteen bishops from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas said they would recommend to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops next month a binding national policy for handling sexual abuse allegations.

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