Maplewood priest charged with fondling woman who sought counseling

  • Article by: DAVID CHANEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2013 - 9:53 PM

A Maplewood pastor is accused of having a sexual relationship with a woman who sought counseling.

A Roman Catholic priest from Maplewood resigned Tuesday after he was charged with having a sexual relationship with a woman who had come to him for spiritual counseling.

The Rev. Mark Huberty, 43, who served as pastor at the Church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary until he was placed on leave Sept. 19, was charged with fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. He immediately resigned his position at Presentation, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said in a statement.

The case is one of a growing number that have led to criticism of the archdiocese for its handling of sexual misconduct cases involving priests. Huberty is now one of a few Minnesota clerics to face felony charges of having sex with a person receiving spiritual advice, aid or comfort — charges that a state Supreme Court ruling earlier this month cleared the way for.

“The conduct alleged is simply not proper conduct for a member of the clergy,” Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said. The case is being handled by Hennepin County because Ramsey County Attorney John Choi was Huberty’s high school classmate, creating concern about the appearance of a conflict of interest.

In its statement, the archdiocese said it “first learned of this situation from another priest in late August and ... immediately began an investigation.” It said it has also “fully cooperated” with law enforcement’s investigation of Huberty.

Huberty served churches in Maple Lake and St. Anthony before starting at Presentation in July 2007. He also was a teaching parish supervisor at St. Paul Seminary and a mentor for newly ordained priests.

According to the charges, Huberty met the woman in 2008, when she was struggling with her faith after the death of a family member. He agreed to be her spiritual adviser, told her to enroll in weekly catechism classes in St. Paul, and discussed church doctrine and practices with her.

Over the next year, they met in person, talked on the telephone and exchanged e-mails and text messages.

In January, he asked her to be his friend and fashioned what he called the rules of their friendship, which allowed touching only above the waist and with clothes on, the charges said.

But the contact went beyond that, and at times he would remove his pants so she could touch his genitals, the charges said. When she questioned the appropriateness of this activity, Huberty assured her that it was only a venial sin, not a mortal one, the charges said.

In April, she became upset when Huberty canceled a vacation in Kansas City, where they were to meet, the charges said. She tried repeatedly contacting him at his private address, sensing the friendship was over.

When she sought Huberty’s advice on how she could stay in the church and attend mass “knowing what they did together,” he told her that there was no need to tell her husband the details of the relationship, the charges said. He said that he had given other female friends the same advice and that all had continued to be active in the church with no ill effects.

He also admonished her to think about how it would negatively affect him if she were to report him to authorities, the charges said.

A month later, she filed a report with Maplewood police.

Huberty could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but his lawyer, Paul Engh, said, “He’s disappointed.” He added that Huberty will appear in court when required to do so.

Since Huberty was charged by summons, he isn’t expected to be arrested before he makes his first appearance Dec. 18.

Ruling cleared the way

Earlier this month, the Minnesota Supreme Court found constitutional a state law that bars clergy members from having sex with people they counsel, clearing the way for the charges against Huberty.

The 4-1 ruling upheld the law in the case of the Rev. Christopher Wenthe, a St. Paul priest who in 2011 was convicted of third-degree sexual misconduct for having a relationship with an adult parishioner a decade ago. The ruling also reversed a Minnesota Court of Appeals decision last year that had granted Wenthe a new trial.

The Appeals Court had ruled that the religious evidence used against Wenthe violated his rights under the First Amendment, which holds in part that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

But the state high court said the law was not excessively entangled with religion because it applies “neutral principles of law and regulates only secular aspects of clergy-parishioner relationships.”

‘It’s a crime’

Megan Peterson, leader of Minnesota’s chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), praised the charge against Huberty, saying, “Keeping quiet only helps predators and endangers others.”

“If a criminal embezzles from a bank, no one talks about their ‘financial relationship,’ ” she said. “So no one should ever talk about ‘a relationship’ between a predatory priest and a parishioner. It’s a crime. It should be treated and described as a crime. It should not be minimized or mischaracterized by words or phrases that suggest consent when no genuine consent is possible.”

David Chanen • 612-673-4465

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