Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ex-priest called before grand jury

Last updated August 14, 2009 5:19 p.m. PT

AP source: Ex-priest called before grand jury

LOS ANGELES -- A former Roman Catholic priest imprisoned for sexually molesting children has been called to testify before a federal grand jury investigating how the Archdiocese of Los Angeles handled claims of abuse, a person with knowledge of the investigation told The Associated Press on Friday.

The person, who requested anonymity because the probe is ongoing, said former priest Michael Baker was transferred into federal custody at least three months ago and invoked his constitutional right against self-incrimination before the grand jury.

The person did not know if Baker would be called to testify again, but added that one other former priest was also involved in the probe.

Baker, 61, pleaded guilty in 2007 to molesting two boys and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Baker was temporarily with the U.S. Marshal's Service, although his primary location was at the California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi in Kern County, said Seth Unger, a state prisons spokesman.

A spokesman for the marshals did not immediately return a call.

Baker has been accused of molesting nearly 20 children over more than two decades and is considered one of the archdiocese's worst pedophiles and one of the most dangerous to the reputation of Cardinal Roger Mahony, who has previously acknowledged making mistakes in how he handled Baker.

Archdiocese attorney Michael Hennigan said in January that federal prosecutors told him Mahony is not a target of the probe. Thom Mrozek, a U.S. attorney's office spokesman, declined to comment Friday.

Baker told Mahony in 1986 at a priests retreat that he had molested two young boys from 1978 to 1985, according to church documents. Mahony did not notify police but sent Baker to a residential facility that treated priests for sexual abuse problems.

In the years that followed, Baker was assigned to nine parishes but barred from having one-on-one contact with minors. He violated those restrictions three times, according to church personnel file summaries released by the archdiocese.

Mahony removed Baker from the ministry in 2000 after two men filed a lawsuit alleging Baker sexually molested them between 1984 and 1999. The archdiocese settled the lawsuit for $1.25 million.

Baker was then charged in 2002 with 34 counts of molestation involving six victims, but those charges were dismissed a year later after the U.S. Supreme Court voided a California law that allowed the prosecution of cases involving acts that occurred before 1988.

In January 2006, the former priest was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport as he returned from a vacation in Thailand.

In an interview Friday, archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg did not address the federal criminal probe but said Baker could not be trusted to tell the truth.

"Michael Baker is a proven liar. He deceived children, he deceived their parents, he deceived other priests and he deceived his bishop, and I don't know why anyone would trust anything Michael Baker would say, even now," Tamberg said. "It's always about Michael Baker protecting himself and only caring about himself."

Donald Steier, Baker's attorney, did not return calls for comment Friday.

Vince Finaldi, a civil attorney, said he learned that Baker was participating in the federal probe when he sought to take the ex-priest's deposition in a pending sex abuse lawsuit against Baker, Mahony and the archdiocese. The plaintiff in the civil case is one of the two victims whose abuse led to Baker's 2007 criminal conviction, he said.

He said he couldn't locate Baker in the state prison system and was told by an official at the U.S. marshal's office that Baker was under the agency's protection as a material witness in the federal investigation.

"I said, 'Why are you guys holding this guy? He was charged and convicted in a state case. He's supposed to be in state prison,'" Finaldi recalled. "He said, 'He's a material witness in a federal case.'"

Finaldi said he was finally able to depose Baker at the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles on July 21.

Finaldi said his client alleges that Mahony officiated at a Lenten Mass in the late 1990s at St. Columbkille Parish in Los Angeles and observed his client, who was an altar boy, interact with Baker, who was the parish priest. He said Mahony gave his client a prayer card and rosary as Baker looked on.

"This was before any of the molestation happened with my client but it was after they knew about Baker, so basically if Mahony had just spoken up and said something, none of the abuse with my client ever would have happened," Finaldi said.

Tamberg declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office launched its own investigation into the archdiocese several years ago but hasn't filed any criminal charges.

Mahony handed over the confidential personnel files of Baker and another priest, George Miller, to local prosecutors after the U.S. Supreme Court rebuffed arguments that the papers were protected materials.

The Los Angeles archdiocese paid a record-breaking $660 million in July 2007 to settle more than 500 claims of sexual abuse.

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