Crime & Justice

Former priest and notorious child molester may be committed instead of released

Michael Stephen Baker, a former Catholic priest, during a court appearance in 2007. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for molesting two boys.
Michael Stephen Baker, a former Catholic priest, during a court appearance in 2007. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison for molesting two boys.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

Prosecutors are trying to commit a former priest notorious for child molestion to a mental hospital.

The former man of the cloth is Michael Baker of theLos Angeles archdiocese. Baker avoided prosecution on all but two of a dozen sexual abuse allegations. If prosecutors are successful he could face an indefinite time in custody. His earlier sentence had him scheduled to leave prison after serving half od a 10-year sentence.

The district attorney's office, acting under a provision known as Jessica's Law, hopes to block his release.

In a petition filed in Superior Court, prosecutors said Baker is a sexually violent predator who would be likely to commit further crimes if released.

Baker, 63, made a brief appearance Friday in Los Angeles County Mental Health Court, where such issues are adjudicated.

Dressed in a red prison uniform, indicating his status as a convicted sexual predator, the gray-haired Baker agreed to have his hearing postponed until Sept. 13 after the judge declared a conflict and had to transfer the case.

At the next hearing, a new judge will set a time for a trial in which witnesses, including psychologists and psychiatrists, would testify about examinations of Baker and his potential to engage in future acts of sexually predatory behavior if released.

His lawyers are seeking dismissal of the motion.

"We are saying he should not spend the rest of his life in prison," said attorney Donald Steier, who represents Baker.

Both Steier and district attorney's spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said the legal issue does not relate directly to Baker's role as a priest.

Still, archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg issued a statement referencing the church scandal.

"As Michael Baker's future is again the focus of court proceedings, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles recalls the terrible harm he inflicted upon his many victims," Tamberg said. "Mr. Baker repeatedly lied to his superiors, therapists and friends, and manipulated treatment protocols in order to continue to prey upon young people."

Baker was first charged in 2002 with more than a dozen crimes against young men, but charges were later voided by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that California lacked the power to retroactively extend deadlines to prosecute older crimes that fell under statutes of limitations.

The district attorney's efforts to move sexually violent predators from prison to mental hospitals are not unusual. Gibbons said the office has filed more than 500 such petitions, but she did not know if any involved priests.

If Baker is found to be a continuing danger, she said he would be sent to the state mental hospital at Coalinga, where he would receive an annual review and remain in custody until he is found to be no longer a danger to others.

Baker's case seriously tarnished the reputation of Cardinal Roger Mahony, who said Baker told him at a retreat in 1986 that he had molested two young boys. Mahony said he didn't alert anyone because the priest told him the children were illegal immigrants who had returned to Mexico.

After six months of treatment, Baker was returned to a restricted ministry and continued to molest.

The archdiocese has paid millions of dollars to alleged victims of Baker, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to molestation of two boys not excluded by time restrictions.

Baker's case was at the center of the scandal in which the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the nation's largest diocese, agreed to pay $60 million to settle 45 lawsuits by people who claimed they were abused by priests. Other cases are pending.