Authorities arrested two former Catholic priests Wednesday on charges that they sexually molested children during their tenure in Los Angeles-area churches and issued an arrest warrant for a third priest after unexpectedly discovering the 82-year-old retiree had left the country on a cruise.
The arrests, the first in Los Angeles County since the Roman Catholic scandal that broke nine months ago, signal the start of more than a dozen planned prosecutions of former Los Angeles Archdiocese priests considered by investigators to be the worst offenders.
“It doesn’t matter who is accused of molesting children, we are going to do our best to bring them to justice,” said Sheriff’s Sgt. Dan Scott.
The three priests targeted Wednesday are accused of molesting more than 20 girls and boys—as young as 8 years old—between the late 1940s and the mid-1980s, police officials say.
Taken into custody by the Los Angeles Police Department early Wednesday was Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 46, on a single count of molesting a 12-year-old altar boy between 1985 and 1987. Bail was set at $400,000.
The law enforcement operation then took a chaotic turn when authorities could not find two of the men, who had both been under investigation for months.
Michael Stephen Baker, 54, was arrested eight hours after sheriff’s investigators began looking for him. Baker, who admitted to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony in 1986 that he had molested boys, was booked on suspicion of child sexual abuse and held on $1-million bail.
The LAPD also was seeking to determine the whereabouts at sea of G. Neville Rucker, a retired priest who, authorities say, is accused of molestation by 16 girls.
The action came a day after a former Orange County priest was arrested on suspicion of sexually abusing a teenage girl in the 1970s. Sheriff’s deputies engaged in a sting operation taped him making an alleged confession to an undercover officer. He believed the officer was his grown daughter by a then-teenage parishioner.
The push for criminal prosecution marks a turning point in the nationwide molestation scandal in the Catholic Church that has seen top church officials—including Mahony—conceding that they knew about abuse of children by troubled priests for decades but did not inform local law enforcement authorities.
In some instances, including the cases of Rucker and Baker, church officials instead chose to transfer the alleged offenders from parish to parish.
The move by Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley to prosecute the priests—and his expressed intent to pursue many more cases—was praised by alleged victims and their attorneys.
“This is another step toward accountability and prevention,” said Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul., Minn., attorney who represents alleged victims of Baker. “Now we want justice.”
Church officials in Los Angeles, who have had a testy relationship with Cooley over his pursuit of personnel files of alleged abusers and their past handling of molesters in their ranks, expressed sorrow over the charges and said they hoped for a quick resolution.
“My heart aches with the pain and suffering endured by victims of sexual abuse by clergy,” Mahony said in a prepared statement. “The archdiocese will continue to reach out to all victims and their families with pastoral care and counseling.”
Cooley issued a brief statement Wednesday saying the investigation is ongoing.
“It is expected that the suspects arrested today will be charged and arraigned in court within the next 48 hours,” he said, adding his office had been working closely with the LAPD and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department on the case. Prosecutors would not detail the evidence they plan to present. Crimes dating back as far as the allegations in the priests’ cases require clear and convincing contemporary corroboration, officials said, and can be difficult to prove.
But there was clearly confusion Wednesday on the part of authorities over the whereabouts of two of the suspects.
Investigators had mistakenly believed Rucker, one of seven priests removed from the ministry earlier this year by Mahony under a retroactive “zero-tolerance” policy for molesters, would be available to turn himself in by noon Wednesday at LAPD headquarters.
Instead, officials learned Wednesday morning from Rucker’s lawyer, Donald Steier, that his client had “left the country” on a cruise a week ago.
LAPD officials, who said Rucker has been accused of molesting 16 girls while serving in parishes in Los Angeles, East Los Angeles and El Segundo between 1947 and 1979, downplayed the significance of his absence.
“When the D.A. called to arrange that this morning, Rucker was on vacation out of the country. He is not considered a fugitive,” said LAPD Cmdr. Gary Brennan.
Brennan said the retired priest had not been under day-to-day surveillance.
“There was nothing to suggest he needed to be watched,” Brennan said.
“We aren’t going to send out the Coast Guard.”
Steier said he told Rucker, who has worked as a cruise ship chaplain, that it was OK to travel because prosecutors gave no indication until Wednesday that they wanted to make an arrest. “Frankly, this could have been avoided if someone made a phone call to me earlier than today,” the attorney said.
The district attorney’s office also expressed frustration.
Law enforcement “investigators are charged with knowing the whereabouts of suspects the district attorney’s office is about to charge,” said Joe Scott, a spokesman for Cooley.
LAPD officers apprehended Rodriguez shortly after 6 a.m. at his home in Commerce. Rodriguez was booked on suspicion of lewd acts with an altar boy over a two-year period in the 1980s.
The alleged victim, now an adult, reported the alleged molestation in April to the LAPD’s sexually exploited child unit, Brennan said. Rodriguez allegedly molested the boy at St. Vincent de Paul Church on West Adams Boulevard. In 1993, he left the priesthood and was living privately when he was taken into custody, Brennan said.
During the investigation into Rodriguez, detectives discovered that the LAPD had received a prior allegation of sexual abuse against a minor by the former priest.
In 1987, the parents of another boy alleged that their son had been sexually abused by Rodriguez during a trip he took with the priest to Arizona, Brennan said. LAPD investigators at the time referred the matter to authorities in Arizona because the incident occurred in that jurisdiction.
Early Wednesday morning, sheriff’s deputies tried to serve an arrest warrant for Baker at his downtown Long Beach high-rise apartment but failed to find the former priest.
Investigators then ordered Baker, through Steier, to turn himself in by 1 p.m., a deadline that came and passed.
He was tracked down by deputies at a La Mirada residence in the early afternoon, according to law enforcement officials.
The home is a short distance from St. Paul of the Holy Cross, a church where he once served and at least one man has alleged he was molested as a boy by Baker.
He was taken to the Norwalk sheriff’s station.
Scott said the allegations against Baker involve multiple victims and incidents that allegedly took place between 1977 and 1985.
Baker resigned from the priesthood in 2000. After his 1986 admissions to Mahony, he was sent for treatment and transferred to several parishes before resigning. In 2000, the archdiocese and Baker settled a lawsuit with two Mexican brothers for $1.3 million after they alleged the priest had molested them over a period of 15 years until 1999.
Steier said his client was on his way to surrender when he was arrested. He said Baker’s arrest would have been far simpler if prosecutors had arranged for him to turn himself in rather than come to his apartment to make a surprise arrest.
As to the allegations, Steier said, “We’ll see if their case meets the requirements of the law.”
Steier acknowledges that Baker has admitted to Mahony that he molested boys but said the acts involved may not be of a serious enough nature to warrant prosecution. “The statute may have expired,” Steier said, of potential lesser crimes. Under state law, there is a 10-year statute on sex crimes, except in the most serious violations, such as rape and sodomy, involving children 15 and under.
Mahony said Wednesday that he hoped for a “quick resolution” of the charges against Rodriguez, Rucker and Baker “so that all parties can move forward toward healing and reconciliation.” In his statement, he made reference to Pope John Paul II’s statement that there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young.
News of the arrests brought a mixture of reactions at Catholic parishes in Los Angeles.
At St. Vincent, where Rodriguez once served, Blancarosa Gonzalez, 48, said that despite the arrests and the wider church scandal, her lifelong faith in the church remains unmoved.
She was visiting the sanctuary, bathed in light from stained-glass windows and votive candles to seek comfort for the murder of her son six months ago in Mexico. “Only here,” she said gesturing to the building behind her, “is there comfort for me.”
Faith Is Shaken
But other worshipers had strong words for church officials they say have shaken their faith—not in God—but in church leaders.
David Figueroa, 22, and Christopher Rivera, 21, who were at the church to dip their hands in holy water, said they have stopped going inside to pray since the sex scandal has escalated.
Struggling to stay out of gangs and prison, they said they are disgusted that members of the priesthood have been accused of committing crimes against children.
In prison, Rivera said, he learned that the bad things in life will always be easier to pursue than a moral path. But if priests cannot resist temptation, what guidance are people left with, they said.
“It’s messed up—you can’t trust anybody,” Figueroa said. “We’re trying to do positive things for ourselves, and this really shakes my faith.”