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That could result in a different outcome, said Engh, who argued that a relationship between consenting adults, regardless of clergy status, should not be deemed illegal under secular law.
“The central problem with the statute is that it requires a religious definition of what spiritual aid and comfort is, and because it invites a religious definition, it interferes with the separation of church and state,” Engh said. “That is the conundrum that is facing the Supreme Court.”
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi declined to discuss the Wenthe case before the ruling is issued.
Ruling could resonate
The most recent case, involving the priest’s relationship with his married parishioner, began first with religious counseling, then dinners and board games with her family. But a search warrant affidavit chronicles a quick shift into a four-month affair that began last January and included some sexual contact.
The affidavit filed this month in Ramsey County District Court sought the priest’s personnel records from the church. According to court documents, the woman may not have been the only one he was involved with.
“And everybody you have done this with is just darn happily back at the church with you saying mass?” she asked him in a recorded telephone conversation, according to the affidavit by a Maplewood police detective.
“As far as I know, any people I’ve been involved with are still fully part of the life of the church, and whatever I’ve done with them has not caused irreparable harm to their marriages,” he allegedly responded.
Freeman said his office is looking forward to guidance when the Wenthe ruling arrives, as his office “traditionally has been very careful in charging cases.”
It’s more complicated, he said, than more clear-cut sexual abuse cases involving minors.
Engh said that, ideally, the Maplewood priest will not be charged, and Wenthe’s conviction will be overturned because the statute is found unconstitutional.
“For the very reason that religion defines what is spiritual, you can’t divorce spirit from religion under this statute,” he said. “It forces the jury to make a determination of what someone’s religion is, and that violates the separation of church and state.”
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921