A Roman Catholic priest from a St. Paul parish saw his sexual misconduct conviction overturned Monday by the state Court of Appeals in a ruling with broader implications for cases involving allegations of clergy abuse.
The ruling created a higher bar for prosecutors and a new avenue of defense for accused clergy.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he was disappointed with the ruling because he is now required to prove intent by the priest. Defense attorney Paul Engh called the decision a move toward fairness for the accused.
Choi said he hasn’t decided whether he will try to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court or try Christopher Thomas Wenthe again. The prosecutor said the ruling creates an “inherent power imbalance between a clergy member and a vulnerable person seeking spiritual or religious advice, aid or comfort from that member, such as is the case here, where the victim had been sexually abused as a child and was struggling with an eating disorder.”
Wenthe met his accuser in September 2003. She was a 21-year-old convert to Catholicism and asked him to be her regular confessor. He agreed even though he had never played such a role before.
Between their initial meeting and the end of the year, they spoke often, confiding in each other in person and on lengthy phone conversations, sharing dinners, watching movies at his apartment and driving to Wenthe’s boyhood home to collect hunting gear.
She alleged that sexual contact occurred at meetings in November and December in Wenthe’s private residence at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church.
The woman didn’t report the allegations to police until seven years later, in April 2010. “She explained that the delay was due to her dissatisfaction with the way the diocese handled her disclosure of the sexual conduct,” the court said.
In 2011, Wenthe was convicted of one count of clergy third-degree sexual misconduct occurring between Nov. 1, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2003. He was acquitted of a second count covering the entirety of the sexual relationship, which lasted more than a year.
The appellate court ruled that Wenthe’s trial was unfair because of the “cumulative effect” of three errors.
Two of the errors involved the judge’s instructions to the jury. The court said jurors should have been told that they had to unanimously agree that the sexual misconduct occurred at a “single meeting” in which the alleged victim sought spiritual aid or comfort from Wenthe. The jurors also should have been required to determine that Wenthe knew the victim was seeking spiritual aid or comfort at that “single meeting,” the court said.
In Wenthe’s trial, the accuser said “spiritual comfort” was always the purpose of their meetings. Wenthe disputed that.
“The jury heard contrasting testimony as to the circumstances surrounding the first and later sexual encounters, particularly respecting the facts as to whether or not the complainant sought or received spiritual advice,” the court said.
A startling shift?
Choi said his “biggest concern” was the ruling’s addition of a requirement to criminal sexual conduct prosecutions involving priests. That new requirement: that the defendant knew the victim was seeking spiritual aid at that particular meeting where the conduct occurred.
Engh, who represents several other clergy accused of abuse, called the decision significant. “It is a shift. But it’s a shift toward fairness and away from strict liability,” he said.
On a third issue, the court said Wenthe’s lawyer, Paul Engh, should have been allowed to question the alleged victim’s assertions that she was a virgin, naive and sexually inexperienced.
Appeals Court Judge Gary Crippen wrote the 22-page ruling for a panel that included Judges Kevin Ross and Carol Hooten.
The court also said Wenthe’s defense should have had an opportunity to raise the woman’s sexual history because prosecutors had opened the door by describing her as a virgin who was naive and vulnerable. In most rape cases, laws bar testimony about the sexual history of the victim.
In a news release, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) called the decision a “painful reminder why it’s so critical that every single person who sees, suspects or suffers clergy sex crimes speak up,” because, it said, multiple victims would have fortified a case against him. The group urged Choi to try the case again.
Wenthe was sentenced to a year in the workhouse — without work release — and has done his time, Engh said. Because of his conviction, he was also required to register as a predatory offender. Monday’s ruling negates his conviction and the requirement. If he were tried again and convicted, the only possible punishment would be the registration requirement.
Engh said his client would like to get back into the priesthood. “It’s his chosen profession,” the lawyer said.