A notorious, child-molesting former priest, who avoided prosecution on all but two of a dozen sexual abuse allegations, could face an indefinite time in custody if prosecutors win a motion to commit him to a mental hospital.
Michael Baker, whose case was at the center of a costly priest abuse scandal that rocked the Los Angeles archdiocese, was scheduled to leave prison after serving half of a 10-year sentence.
But the district attorney's office, acting under a provision known as Jessica's Law, stepped in 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, which resulted in a $660 million settlement with more than 500 plaintiffs. Attorney Ray Boucher estimated that Baker's conduct accounted for $40 million of the total. Other cases are pending.
"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 34 counts of molestation involving six victims, but those charges were dismissed in 2003 after the U.S. Supreme Court voided a California law that allowed the prosecution of cases involving acts that occurred before 1988.
However, allegations by two Arizona men and one other victim allowed prosecutors to file new charges against Baker that fell within the statute of limitations.
In January 2006, the former priest was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport as he returned from a vacation in Thailand and prosecuted.
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.