Jury deliberating in case of priest accused of sexual misconduct

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2011 - 6:10 PM

Testimony and closing arguments were completed Monday.

A Ramsey County District Court jury has begun deliberations in the case of a priest accused of sexual misconduct from 2003 to 2005 with a vulnerable young woman.

The Rev. Christopher Wenthe admitted during testimony last week and again on Monday that he had a sexual relationship with the alleged victim, who as a 21-year-old in 2003 asked him to be her "regular confessor."

But he denied he provided spiritual aid or comfort when the sex occurred. The relationship was one of friendship -- not a "priest-penitent relationship," he testified on Monday.

The woman testified that she viewed him always as "my priest," and that she, in fact, had never referred to him by any other name but "Father Wenthe."

Wenthe, who was ordained about six months before the sex began in the rectory of Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul, is accused of sexually exploiting the woman as she fought to overcome an eating disorder and the lingering effects of childhood sexual abuse.

The woman, now 29, went to police with her allegations of misconduct in 2010, leaving the priest to defend himself now against claims that already led the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to require him to undergo treatment.

Wenthe first took the stand Thursday after the alleged victim testified about a conversation she had with Wenthe after she, too, went to treatment.

She quoted the priest as telling her that their story "had been about two people falling in love."

Looking back now, she said, the statement told her one thing: "He was not well," she testified.

Of that meeting, Wenthe said Monday: "We spoke like old friends -- with deep affection," he said. When prosecutor David Hunt asked him about the victim's claim that he described them as two people who fell in love, Wenthe replied: "I never said that to her."

He is accused of violating a state law that prohibits clergy members from having sex with someone to whom they are providing spiritual aid or comfort.

During questioning by his attorney, Paul Engh, Wenthe acknowledged having heard one face-to-face confession from the woman after she asked him to be her regular confessor. But he said that she never scheduled an appointment with him for spiritual counseling, and that the two never prayed together.

Asked whether he was guilty or not guilty, he replied: "I'm not guilty."

Priest's story

In 2003, Wenthe was assigned to Nativity church, a late-comer to the priesthood at age 38.

He grew up in south Minneapolis, and followed in his father's footsteps as an electrical engineer. Wenthe graduated from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and worked nine years at two Twin Cities area firms. At the first, he focused on aircraft control systems -- helping improve the means by which pilots knew how fast planes were traveling -- and then, at the second, aiding development of large machines that fertilize farm fields.

He was dating, too, with one relationship being serious enough to consider marriage, he testified. But he also felt a calling to the priesthood, and ultimately chose the seminary life.

Prior to being ordained, Wenthe began to feel anxious, he said. He was not good with names, and as an introvert, he did not enjoy public speaking.

The pressures only grew with his subsequent placement at Nativity church, one of the archdiocese's largest with a sophisticated class of parishioners that made the task of writing strong homilies even more formidable, Engh said.

"And I felt lonely," Wenthe testified.

Into his life entered the University of St. Thomas student, a recent convert to Catholicism. Initially, she asked a fellow Nativity priest to be her confessor, but because he soon would be leaving the church, he declined. She turned to Wenthe. They exchanged cell phone numbers, and after one face-to-face confession in his apartment, a friendship grew.

During the following month, the frequency of phone calls grew. She confided in him about her eating disorder and the childhood sex abuse. When he was sick, she brought him soup. On Nov. 4, 2003, his birthday, she gave him a book, "Diary of a Country Priest," documenting a priest's struggles working in a rural area. Said Wenthe, "She believed it resonated with my situation." He was beginning to "feel a type of affection I hadn't felt before."

About a week later, Nov. 13, they had their first sexual encounter, an event that had been preceded by a marathon phone conversation the previous evening during which Wenthe said the two spoke of sexual matters and intimacy.

That night, he left a door ajar, and she arrived to find the priest wearing only boxers and a T-shirt. He claimed during testimony that it was due to heat in the apartment. It was an old building, he said, with a thermostat that was difficult to control. He claimed she asked to dress in some of his clothes, and he laid out some shorts and a T-shirt, which she wore. While on the couch, they kissed, and when he got on top of her, "she had a couple sexual orgasms," h testified.

There was no intercourse.

He said she asked, "What can I do for you?" Then, in his bedroom, she performed oral sex. Afterward, he cried, he said, because he'd broken his vow of celibacy.

During her testimony, the woman said that it was Wenthe who initiated the oral sex -- that he made her feel as if she needed to "finish" what she started.

His testimony ended on Thursday with Wenthe saying the two agreed "to be chaste." But the oral sex continued, he said, one time on a night in January 2004, when she stopped in to say she liked his Christmas tree. The lights were blue, he testified, "indicative of my mood at the time."

Wrapping up

In her testimony, the alleged victim acknowledged that she cared for Wenthe. But it was not love that she felt, she said. Instead, it was a "strong attachment," due largely to her vulnerabilities, the woman said.

"I was hopeless. I was seeking assurance and comfort," she said. "I was always seeking spiritual comfort even in the midst of what became a horrible cycle."

The Rev. Kevin McDonough, who handles cases of alleged clergy abuse for the archdiocese, testified Thursday that he spoke with Wenthe after allegations of an inappropriate relationship first surfaced in 2005. He said Wenthe admitted to him that he had engaged in an "illicit relationship" and that while he and the woman were friends, that "he had also provided pastoral care to her."

On Monday, Wenthe denied having told McDonough that he provided pastoral care to the woman.

The case went to the jury about 4:45 p.m. Monday, and jury members were excused for the day at 5 p.m. They are to resume deliberations at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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