She was a young woman with a troubled past, he was a St. Paul priest who agreed to be her "regular confessor," and on Tuesday, a Ramsey County District Court jury determined that when the two had sex it was a crime.
The Rev. Christopher Wenthe, newly ordained when the then-21-year-old woman performed oral sex on him in the rectory of Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in 2003, was found guilty of one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct.
He had never disputed the sexual relationship, only the claim that it occurred while he was providing spiritual aid or comfort -- the pivotal distinction in determining guilt or innocence in cases of alleged clergy sexual misconduct.
Prosecutors David Hunt and Karen Kugler said they will ask that he be imprisoned for four years -- the presumptive sentence in the case.
District Judge Margaret Marrinan, who presided over the trial, denied Hunt's motion to have Wenthe taken into custody immediately. But after defense attorney Paul Engh said he would seek a probationary sentence, the judge said: "The court will direct the defendant to bring his toothbrush" when he appears for sentencing on Dec. 14.
Wenthe shook his head slowly while the jury's verdict was read. He was convicted of one count involving sex between Nov. 1, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2003, and acquitted of a second covering the entirety of their sexual relationship. His brother, Greg Wenthe, said after the proceeding that Wenthe was "very sad and concerned."
"We love our brother," he said. "We're praying. We're praying for everybody involved."
In closing arguments, Kugler said that the woman, battling an eating disorder and the lingering effects of childhood sexual abuse, was naive, vulnerable and inexperienced when she was "manipulated into a long-term sexual relationship" by a person in authority whom she trusted.
Engh described the woman as the pursuer in the relationship, saying her actions were "a hustle, in a sense." Once she had the priest's cellphone number, he said, she called him, and kept on calling, even after the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis sent Wenthe to treatment.
The testimony offered during the three-day trial portrayed a relationship that began as a high-minded celebration of faith but evolved into something disordered and raw.
In the defense's view, the woman had gone up to the priest's apartment on the night of their first sexual encounter seemingly bent on having sex.
Prosecutors said the priest introduced anal sex into the relationship and showed up at the woman's apartment with Vaseline.
Throughout his testimony, Wenthe denied that he provided spiritual aid or comfort when the sex occurred. The relationship was one of friendship -- not a "priest-penitent relationship," he said.
The woman testified that he was always "my priest," and that she, in fact, never referred to him by any other name but "Father Wenthe."
Few cases to date
Records show that as of June, the state had seen only 10 cases charged under the state law cited in the Wenthe case.
Last summer, Engh argued that the law is unconstitutional, but Marrinan ruled in July that the case could proceed. Engh said Tuesday that he will appeal that ruling.
In the six years since the sexual relationship ended, the woman secured a job with the archdiocese's office of marriage, family and life. Wenthe was appointed parochial vicar at St. Michael's and St. Mary's parishes in Stillwater and then in 2009 as the pastor of St. Joseph's and St. Peter's churches in Delano. No complaints had been made about Wenthe in those church communities, the archdiocese said recently.
But it was a visit to a Stillwater service that set the woman on a course that would end with her reporting the relationship to police in 2010.
She claimed that Wenthe told her then that their story "had been about two people falling in love," which she took as a signal that "he was not well." He denied making the statement.
Kugler said the "final straw" for the victim was when the archdiocese appointed Wenthe as a pastor in Delano, and Archbishop John Nienstedt wrote a letter to her saying that she should trust the shepherds of the church.
"I felt [then] the burden fell on me to ensure that all the details were known to the public," the victim testified.
Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041