Mahony Resources – September 17–30,
By William Lobdell
In one of the first legal attacks on the nation's Roman Catholic leadership, an alleged molestation victim has filed suit contending that bishops conspired over the past 30 years to protect priests who sexually abused children to "avoid detection, public disclosure and scandal."
The lawsuit filed Monday in Orange County Superior Court alleges that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops even conducted seminars to show bishops and dioceses how to discourage and discredit claims of child sexual molestation, how to conceal or "sanitize" damaging records of accused molesters, and how to quietly transfer the suspected molesters without raising suspicion among congregants.
Some experts say the suit is an innovative legal strategy to hold U.S. bishops accountable for a national wave of molestation cases involving priests that has tarnished the reputation of the church over the past year. Others call it a legal grandstanding ploy with no credibility.
"This is an inevitable and logical conclusion to all that has been revealed in the past year," said Richard Sipe, a former priest and national authority on sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church who has testified for the plaintiffs in many molestation cases. "There is good evidence that the bishops conference has been aware of and consulted on sexual abuse issues."
An attorney for the bishops conference called the suit "frivolous," saying that the national association of bishops never engaged in the kind of tactics alleged.
And, as a point of law, the conference, which functions roughly like a professional association for bishops, has no authority to enforce its policies and guidelines in the nation's 165 autonomous dioceses, said Mark E. Chopko, general counsel for the conference. He said the conference has been named only once before in a sexual abuse suit, and eventually was dropped as a defendant.
"The premise that we're somehow involved is completely wrong as a matter of law, a matter of fact, and a matter of equity," Chopko said Monday.
Also named in the suit filed by David Price are the Los Angeles and Orange dioceses and a Maryland treatment center for clerics.
Price, 37, alleges that he was molested as a teenager by Msgr. Michael Harris, his principal at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, over a five-year period ending in 1983. The dioceses of Los Angeles and Orange paid $5.2 million last year to settle molestation allegations by another plaintiff against Harris. The former priest has denied all allegations.
Price originally filed suit in 1994, alleging that Harris molested him. A Superior Court judge rejected that case, saying the statute of limitations had expired. In the latest suit, the former Orange County resident has alleged he dropped an appeal of his original case when diocesan attorneys used the threat of $32,000 in legal bills to persuade him to sign a release agreeing to drop the suit.
Price now is charging the Diocese of Orange with fraud, saying church attorneys called his first case against Harris "unmeritorious" even though diocesan leaders already had reviewed a damning report on the monsignor's alleged sexual misconduct from the St. Luke Institute in Maryland, a treatment center to which Harris had been sent for a five-day evaluation in early 1994.
Price also contends that church officials knew of others who had come forward with sexual abuse allegations against Harris.
A spokeswoman for the Diocese of Orange said she hadn't seen the suit and couldn't comment. A St. Luke Institute official said Father Stephen J. Rossetti, its president, was out of town Monday and no one else was available to comment.
In the mid-1990s, Dallas attorney Sylvia M. Demarest sued the nation's bishops as part of a church molestation case that resulted in a $120-million jury verdict, which eventually was settled for $23 million.
On the eve of oral arguments in 1996 before the Texas Supreme Court, Demarest withdrew the charges against the bishops conference, writing that while she believed the bishops were culpable, "such claims of institutional negligence have been seriously compromised" by recent Texas Supreme Court opinions.
"My theory at the time was there was a conspiracy that included every bishop in the United States," Demarest said in an interview Monday. "The sexual abuse would be concealed, priests would remain in ministry, no one would know. Everything I alleged turned out to be true this year."
Demarest said Price's attorney, John Manly of Costa Mesa, might have better luck because of a meeting of the bishops conference in June, when prelates hammered out a new, high-profile sexual abuse policy that called for zero-tolerance for priests who molest minors.
At the meeting in Dallas, several high-ranking bishops conceded they should have done more to investigate claims and to protect children.
The issue to be decided is whether the sweeping policy set in Dallas translates into new authority for the conference on matters of sexual abuse or whether the procedures were merely suggestions that can be used or ignored by the dioceses.
"By exercising control, they deny they have no control," Demarest said.
When Manly was told that the bishops' attorney said the conference had no control over the dioceses, he replied, "Gee, who were those fellows in Dallas? Their actions speak for themselves."
Father Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, a Catholic weekly magazine, has closely followed the sex scandal and said he doubts that the bishops conference will remain a defendant.
"[The conference] has never been successfully sued because each diocese is autonomous in its legal and financial operations and has responsibility for its priests and employees," Reese said.
"As for accusing bishops of orchestrating a conspiracy, I don't
think they're that smart or coordinated to do that."
Sting Leads to Sex Abuse Charge Against Ex-Priest
By William Lobdell and Christine Hanley
Orange County authorities arrested a former Catholic priest Tuesday on suspicion of sexually abusing a teenage girl in the 1970s after the man allegedly confessed to an undercover deputy posing as his out-of-wedlock daughter.
Gerald John Plesetz, 59, of Orange is the first priest to be criminally charged with sexually abusing victims in Los Angeles or Orange counties since the Roman Catholic sex scandal broke nine months ago. Plesetz, who left the priesthood in the late 1970s and works as an administrator for the Orange County Health Care Agency, was charged with three counts of oral copulation with a minor under the age of 16. It's unclear why prosecutors did not charge him with statutory rape; they accuse Plesetz in court documents of impregnating the girl.
Officials with the Orange County district attorney's office said that in child abuse cases, the statute of limitations does not begin until the victim comes forward no matter how long ago the alleged crime occurred. Charges must be filed within a year of that date.
Plesetz's arrest caps a four-month investigation into crimes authorities said occurred from 1972 to 1974, when Plesetz was a pastor at St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point.
It comes as advocates for victims of priest abuse criticize law enforcement for not filing criminal charges in most cases.
The alleged victim, identified in the criminal complaint as "Janet M.," first met the priest when she was a 13-year-old singer in the church choir.
Prosecutors charge that Plesetz repeatedly abused her—acts that ended when she became pregnant.
The priest met with the girl's parents and arranged to pay all expenses related to the pregnancy, according to court records. The baby girl, Jennifer, was put up for adoption.
Authorities became aware of the incident in June, when Janet M. filed a complaint with the Orange County Sheriff's Department.
Jim Amormino, a sheriff's spokesman, said he didn't know why she decided to come forward. "I don't know if she lived that long with anger or what had happened," he said.
Investigators set up a sting two weeks later.
It began July 1 when the woman called Plesetz and told him that the daughter she had given up for adoption 27 years ago wanted to meet him.
"You're kidding me—that's Jen, Jennifer?" said Plesetz in a secretly taped phone conversation detailed in the criminal complaint.
The next day, Plesetz met with Janet M. and an undercover sheriff's deputy posing as her daughter.
He admitted having intercourse with the woman and impregnating her, according to the complaint. Speaking to the deputy that he believed was his daughter, Plesetz described the mother as "a young girl who was going through womanly changes and she was very aggressive. She was beautiful, talented and she knew what she wanted," according to court records.
On July 3, sheriff's investigators confronted Plesetz, and he confessed to the crimes, prosecutors said in court records.
But he was not arrested at that time. The case was temporarily shelved because of the high-profile July 15 kidnapping of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, which diverted department resources.Detectives continued to build their case over the last two months and arrested Plesetz at his home Tuesday. He was being held late Tuesday at the Men's Central Jail in Santa Ana on $50,000 bail. He is scheduled to be arraigned Thursday.
Plesetz is the fifth priest from St. Edward Catholic Church to be accused of abusing minors over the last three decades. None of the other priests have been charged.
"We're shocked, saddened and heartsick," said Bishop Tod D. Brown of the Diocese of Orange, after being told of the arrest. "Our hearts go out to the victim."
Advocates for victims of priest abuse described the arrest as a milestone. "I think when victims hear about this arrest it's going to give them hope," said Mary Grant, a Los Angeles-based director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "It's been a long process for victims—hundreds have come forward. This is a sign that this is being taken seriously."
While the Catholic Church in Southern California and across the nation has paid out millions of dollars to abuse victims who filed civil suits, criminal charges against priests remain relatively rare.
Hemmed in by statute of limitations laws, faded memories, little corroborating evidence and the power of the priesthood and Catholic Church, prosecutors have put few clerics in jail for sexually abusing minors.
Covertly recorded phone calls and meetings are an increasingly common device for gathering evidence in decades-old abuse cases where evidence is slim.
In Los Angeles, Catholic officials are bracing for possible indictments of 15 current and former priests on felony sex charges, according to law enforcement sources. In Orange County, a handful of priests are under criminal investigation.
Times staff writers Stuart Pfeifer and Richard Winton contributed to
Former Priests Charged With Felony Child Abuse
DOWNEY, Calif. -- A former priest who was moved from parish to parish after admitting to Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony that he molested boys has been charged with 29 counts of sexual misconduct with a minor, prosecutors said Thursday.
Michael Baker, 54, is charged with molesting the child between 1977 and 1985. He appeared in court Thursday but his arraignment was postponed until Oct. 17.
Baker was one of four former priests targeted for arrest this week, marking the first criminal cases in Southern California since the nationwide sex abuse scandal erupted in January.
"No profession or occupation is immune from civil authority and the operation of the criminal justice system," Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley said in a prepared statement.
Wearing a blue jailhouse jumpsuit, Baker stood before Commissioner Ross Klein in handcuffs and answered "no" when asked if he was prepared for the arraignment.
Baker's lawyer Donald Steier argued that his client's bail should be reduced from $1 million because he has no criminal record and the charges involve only one victim.
"This is a case where the gentleman self-reported and went to therapy. Certainly not a flight risk," Steier said.
Deputy District Attorney Suzanne Freeman countered that more than $5,000 in cash was found in Baker's home during his arrest on Wednesday, suggesting he might have been preparing to leave the area. Earlier this year, Baker took trips to Mexico and Nepal, the prosecutor said.
"We feel that $1 million is eminently reasonable," she said.
Klein refused to lower bail.
Baker has been charged with 13 counts of lewd acts upon a child under 14, and 16 counts of oral copulation with a minor, prosecutors said.
Baker has been accused of sexual abuse by several altar boys, including Matt Severson. "You have to understand that Father Mike... was like a rock star priest," Severson said.
Baker is reportedly the subject of a grand jury investigation.
"I think even he saw himself as above the church," Severson said. "He did not live like other priests."
Baker has denied abuse allegations in the past
He also had been accused of sexual misconduct by two brothers who are now adults and live in Arizona. They previously reached a $1.3 million out-of-court settlement with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Many of the alleged crimes occurred at the rectory of St. Paul of God Church in La Mirada, authorities said. In 1986, Baker told Mahony that he had molested young boys and was reassigned to several parishes after attending a treatment center for pedophile priests.
Baker retired from the priesthood in 2000. Mahony has since issued a public apology for allowing him to remain in the ministry after admitting his abuse.
Also charged on Thursday was Carlos Rene Rodriguez, 46, a former Roman Catholic priest suspected of molesting a 12-year-old altar boy over a two-year period ending in 1987. He pleaded innocent Thursday to eight counts of lewd acts upon a child at a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court. Bail was set at $400,000.
Rodriguez, a former Vincentian priest, was not affiliated with the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
On Wednesday, Los Angeles police said an arrest warrant has been issued for former priest George Rucker. Authorities allege Rucker, who had been assigned to three parishes in the Los Angeles area, molested 16 women in Los Angeles County from 1947 to 1979.
Rucker, now 82, was removed by the archdiocese in April. His attorney told prosecutors he is traveling outside the country.
"He is not a fugitive, he is just on a holiday," said Steier, who also represents Rucker. "I have every reason to think he's coming back."
On Tuesday, authorities in neighboring Orange County arrested a former priest after he allegedly confessed to an undercover sheriff's deputy posing as the daughter he is accused of fathering three decades ago.
Gerald John Plesetz, 59, was arrested at his home on suspicion of molesting a girl who authorities say gave birth to his child in the 1970s.
The status of his case could not be immediately determined.
Two Former L.A.-Area Priests Are Arrested
By Richard Winton and Megan Garvey
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."
Accused Priests [for photos see URL]
Michael Stephen Baker
Carlos Rene Rodriguez
G. Neville Rucker
Times staff writers Larry Stammer and Lisa Richardson contributed to
Charge against Plesetz echoed
By Carol McGraw
A second woman surfaced Thursday to accuse former Catholic priest Gerald John Plesetz of fathering another child at a time he was supposed to be offering spiritual counseling.
Plesetz, 59, out on bail and awaiting arraignment Oct. 25, was arrested this week [9/24] on charges of having a sexual relationship with a 14-year-old girl who had a child in 1974. He admitted to sheriff's investigators that the child was his, court records say.
Plesetz, who lives in Orange and works for Orange County Health Care Agency, said Thursday that his relationship with the girl, now a woman identified in court papers as "Janet M," was "a foolish mistake."
"It was a stupid thing. It was a terrible thing."
He declined further comment on the charges, saying he didn't want to sound "whiny" and that he was in the process of hiring a lawyer.
The second woman, who lives in Irvine, said she came forward to support Janet M. To protect other family members, she said, she did not want her name revealed.
"It took extraordinary courage for Janet M to speak out," she said. "And I would like to dispel the notion that this conduct on the part of Father Jerry was an isolated event."
The Irvine woman said that, around 1976, when she was 22 years old, she returned to St. Edward Church in Dana Point after a divorce that had separated her from her Catholic faith. She was referred to Plesetz for counseling.
"I longed to once again be a member of the Catholic Church community, to be right with God, to be able to receive Communion. Father Jerry gave his assurance he would help me."
But eventually he made sexual advances toward her, she said.
"It was very confusing. He took advantage of his position of power and my vulnerability. I felt he was the one who held the power to my reconciliation with the church."
She said that when she became pregnant he first denied the child was his, but then said she could count on him.
Three months later she found out that he had left the priesthood and married a woman who attended St. Cecilia's Church in Tustin, where he had also served. That woman is now deceased.
The Irvine woman called her daughter "an incredible gift from God, and I am unquestionably thankful for her. However, the circumstances under which she was born were devastating."
Plesetz most recently served as a priest at St. Matthew Church in Orange. Married priests can serve in that church, which is affiliated with the Old Catholic movement.
Bishop Peter Hickman said he let the priest go this summer after the
Archdiocese of Los Angeles told him of Janet M's allegations. Hickman
said Plesetz told him that those allegations were true and said it was
a "foolish thing" that happened after he was newly ordained.
"He said he always regretted it," Hickman said.
Bishop Accountability © 2003
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