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The opinion rejected Wenthe’s argument that the state law targets clergy, reasoning that other professions such as psychotherapists and correctional officers are included in the statute.
“The Legislature did not single out clergy members because of their affiliation with a religious group,” Gildea wrote. “Instead, the Legislature identified the existence of a power imbalance between clergy members (or purported clergy members) and their parishioners in certain situations — similar to power imbalances created between other professionals and their clients.”
Contrasts from 2007
It was the second time in six years that the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the clergy sexual conduct law.
In 2007, the court decided 5-1 to grant a new trial for ex-priest John Bussmann, who was convicted of sexually abusing two women, on the grounds that the evidence against him relied too heavily on church doctrine.
But they evenly split on whether the statute itself was constitutional, meaning it was upheld.
Gildea wrote that the issues in the Bussmann case were different from Wenthe’s. For instance, aspects of Bussmann’s case focused on “the religious power of a priest.”
Secondly, Gildea wrote, the evidence used to convict Wenthe involving Catholic doctrine was relevant to determining whether he was acting as a spiritual adviser or “friend and lover,” as he contended.
Justice Alan Page dissented, reasoning that the state law is unconstitutional. Justices Christopher Dietzen and Wilhelmina Wright did not take part in the ruling.
Engh, who also represents the Maplewood priest under scrutiny and a corrections officer accused under the same statute, declined to say whether consent between adults should negate the law for nonclergy professions as well as clergy.
He maintained that the law, however, is a clear violation of the separation of church and state.
“I respectfully disagree with the court, and I believe this statute is centered, by definition, on religion,” he said.
Abby Simons • 612-673-4921