Michigan priest sentenced to prison for sexual abuse of second-grader

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A priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit has been sentenced for the rape of an elementary student at the Catholic school attached to the parish he served as pastor in the mid-2000s.

“We trust the judgment of the court. We pray for everybody involved,” Ned McGrath, director of public affairs at the Archdiocese of Detroit, told CNA March 2. “Our priority in all of these cases is always the victim-survivors.”

Father Joseph “Jack” Baker, 61, was sentenced to three to 15 years in prison on March 1 in Wayne County’s 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit. In October 2022 he was convicted of first-degree criminal conduct–sexual penetration with a person under age 13.

Baker’s attorney said he planned to appeal the verdict, Fox News reported.

The charge dated back to 2004, when the victim was a second-grader at St. Mary Catholic School in Wayne, Michigan, and Baker was pastor of St. Mary Catholic Parish. According to the victim’s account, he was sent to the church sacristy during an after-school religious program to retrieve a book. He said the priest put him over a table and raped him.

The victim, now in his mid-20s, told his parents about the assault in 2019. The archdiocese received a report of the allegation and forwarded it to the Michigan Attorney General’s Office in June 2019, CBS News Detroit reported.

McGrath told CNA that the archdiocese’s response to the complaint is consistent with its actions for more than 20 years.

“We don’t review any complaints when they first come in. We pass them on immediately,” he said.

A key piece of evidence was a recording and transcript of the 2019 call the victim’s father made with the priest, the Troy, Michigan-based paper The Oakland Press reported. The prosecution said the recording proved the priest admitted to the allegation and apologized, while the defense questioned that interpretation.

Defense witnesses included six former teachers and staff at the parish school who said the alleged victim would never have been sent to the sacristy and would not have taken part in after-school religious education because this was offered to non-students of the parish school, and the victim attended the parish school. The victim said he took part in the program for first Communion preparation to make up for school absences.

Both the priest and the victim took the stand to testify. Baker repeatedly denied the allegation during the trial.

When the verdict was announced Oct. 13, Archbishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit said he had followed the proceedings “closely” and was “aware of the wounds experienced by all involved.”

“May they receive the healing power of Christ in prayer,” the archbishop said.

On June 20, 2019, the archdiocese announced that it had received the allegation against Baker and reported it “immediately” to the Michigan attorney general’s office. The archdiocese restricted Baker, then 57 years old, from all public ministry and started a canonical process against him.

McGrath told CNA the canonical process has not yet begun against Baker, pending the outcome of further legal action in Michigan court. He also noted Church efforts to improve child protection.

“Starting, probably in 2002 with the Dallas Charter, our archdiocese, like most dioceses around the country, started training people in child protection,” he said. “We look at it now, 20 years later, at the huge numbers we have trained. It was a big job but it has done its job.”

The Archdiocese of Detroit’s child protection website says the archdiocese has had “a robust safe environment program” since 2002 to help people identify situations where a child could be vulnerable to sexual abuse. The program trains clergy, employees, and volunteers on how to prevent and report the sexual abuse of minors.

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Baker, the priest now convicted of rape, studied at Michigan Technological University. He was ordained a priest in 1993 after studies at the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary.

He served as associate pastor at several parishes and was a campus minister for Wayne State Medical School Campus Ministry from 1996-1997 before serving as pastor of St. Mary Parish from 1997-2008. He then served as pastor of St. Perpetua Parish in Waterford through 2019.

Allegations of recent abuse by Catholic clergy number about two dozen or fewer per year, according to reports from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection.

However, there are many more new allegations of historic abuse from victims who are now adults. Statistical graphs of the dates of reported abuse incidents continue to show a bell curve: abuse by clergy peaked in the 1970s, then declined significantly in recent decades.

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