St. Paul priest gets year in jail for sexual misconduct

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 14, 2011 - 11:19 PM

A judge said it was "a disgrace" for the Rev. Christopher Wenthe to take advantage of a woman he was counseling.

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Rev. Christopher Wenthe

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He was a Catholic priest, once the associate pastor of one of St. Paul's most venerable churches, but as he stood before a Ramsey County District Court judge Wednesday, the Rev. Christopher Wenthe was a convicted sex offender, too.

Court records will show that Wenthe, 47, was sentenced to one year in the county's correctional facility and ordered to pay up to $90,000 in restitution -- part of the penalty for having sex with a vulnerable young woman he counseled.

But District Judge Margaret Marrinan had insights to share, too. She spoke of what she saw as his dishonesty in a pre-sentence interview, and about his conduct at trial -- actions that suggested to her, she said, that Wenthe was an "extremely narcissistic individual."

As for the crime itself, the abuse of authority, Marrinan said: "What you've done is a disgrace to your church."

In her sentence, the judge spared Wenthe from prison time, staying a 57-month prison sentence for 15 years, and imposing the workhouse term instead. She said that while mindful of prosecutor Karen Kugler's push for a four-year prison term, she thought it important for Wenthe to be able to cover treatment costs incurred by the victim and her family. Marrinan said that the victim's mother had taken out a second mortgage to pay those costs, which may have run as high as $90,000.

Wenthe also was ordered to pay a $30,000 court fine.

He will not be allowed to go on work release while in jail, the judge said.

In a brief statement, Wenthe told the judge: "I deeply regret the hurt that my actions have caused so many people," especially the victim, he said. He acknowledged "the hurt she still feels."

When arrested earlier this year, Wenthe was pastor of St. Joseph's and St. Peter's churches in Delano. On Wednesday, he was taken into custody after signing a form registering as a predatory sex offender.

Abuse of power

In November 2003, the victim was a 21-year-old convert to Catholicism when she performed oral sex on Wenthe in his rectory apartment at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church. Earlier, she had asked him to be her regular confessor, she testified, and described to him her struggles coping with an eating disorder and the effects of childhood sexual abuse.

On Wednesday, the woman, now 30, told Marrinan that she went to Wenthe at a time of "enormous promise and hope" and that he had leveraged her suffering for his sexual gratification.

Marrinan told the woman that she knew it had been difficult for her to testify, and added: "You made public what needed to be made public."

Last month, Wenthe was convicted of one count of clergy sexual misconduct involving sex between Nov. 1, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2003. He was acquitted of a second count covering the entirety of the sexual relationship, which lasted more than a year.

Defense attorney Paul Engh, who argued against a prison term, said of Wenthe: "He is a loving man. He has done a lot of good."

Wenthe's brother, Greg Wenthe, said after the hearing that the family "was very saddened by these events and would continue to pray for the healing of everyone involved."

Marrinan ordered Wenthe's supporters out of the courthouse before the victim could leave the courtroom. The move came after Kugler told the judge that someone had approached the victim earlier in the day and said to her: "Shame on you," Kugler said.

Engh said that he plans to appeal the conviction.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-875-0041

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