Priest argues sex with woman was consensual

  • Article by: ROSE FRENCH, TONY KENNEDY and PAT PHEIFER , Star Tribune staff writers
  • Updated: February 18, 2011 - 8:20 PM

Delano pastor appears in court, is ordered to have no contact with accuser.

The Rev. Christopher Wenthe

He thought they were friends, the Rev. Christopher Wenthe told police.

She thought he was her priest and counselor, the criminal complaint says.

That is the crux of the case against a Twin Cities priest charged with engaging in sexual conduct with a young woman. His attorney defended his actions after a court hearing on Friday, calling it a consensual relationship with a "close friend."

Wearing khaki pants, a button-down shirt and no priestly collar, Wenthe made his first court appearance after his arrest Thursday for third-degree criminal sexual conduct while he was a priest at Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul from 2003 to 2005. Wenthe, 46, went through treatment required by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, then was returned to active ministry. His lawyer said he will resign his position with the Delano Catholic Community but doesn't plan to resign from the priesthood.

Ramsey County District Judge Rosanne Nathanson ordered him to have no contact with the alleged victim. His next court appearance is set for March 25.

"Having sex with someone who has become a close friend is not illegal, though contrary to Father Wenthe's vows," said his attorney, Paul Engh.

Twin Cities archdiocese officials on Friday again defended their decision not to take the case to police after the woman came to them with allegations against Wenthe in September 2005. They say they did not report it because she was an adult at the time. They did, however, notify trustees of St. Peter's and St. Joseph parishes in Delano, where Wenthe was pastor. that he had been sent to therapy and had been cleared to return to clergy work.

"We can't report it [to police] without her consent because it was an adult woman and she did not want to do that," said archdiocese spokesman Dennis McGrath. "We couldn't countermand her wishes." McGrath said all reports of abuse involving minors reported to the archdiocese are sent to police.

She went to police in 2010

The woman, now 29, reported the alleged abuse to St. Paul police in April 2010. According to the complaint, she had confided to Wenthe that she had been sexually abused as a child and had suffered from an eating disorder.

Under a 1993 state law, it's a felony for any clergy member to have sex with another adult who is seeking or receiving "religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private."

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said the facts of the case fit "very perfectly'' within the definition of the statute, which specifically notes that consent by the victim cannot be used as a criminal defense. Choi said Wenthe is only the second person to be prosecuted under the law in Ramsey County since it was adopted in 1993.

In an unusually detailed document supporting the criminal complaint, Wenthe is quoted as telling police he had sex with the victim in the church rectory on several occasions after officiating weekday mass, which the woman attended. The woman told police they sometimes had sexual contact in the church sacristy, immediately following mass.

The officer who interviewed Wenthe said he asked the priest how he was able to "differentiate himself from his duties as a priest, officiating mass immediately prior to participating in sexual contact in the church rectory." The officer wrote in his report that the priest "was not able to provide an explanation."

Although Wenthe told police that he took the woman's confession only once -- in his private quarters at the Nativity rectory -- she said that Wenthe was her regular confessor. She told police that Wenthe continued to hear her confessions during a time when they were still engaging in sexual contact. "She stated that her need to be absolved of her sins outweighed her reluctance to interact with the defendant in a spiritual manner," the document said.

She told police that she left for Arizona after a difficult sexual encounter with Wenthe that occurred against her protest. While she was in counseling in Arizona, the priest would call her at all hours and try to engage her in phone sex, the woman told police. A friend of the woman became aware of the calls and notified the archdiocese, at which point Wenthe was called in to explain, according to the documents.

Church not required to report

Choi, the county attorney, said the church was not legally required to report the incident to police because the woman was in her early 20s at the time. Had she been a minor, the church would have been required to report it as abuse, the county attorney's office said.

The incident drew a swift retort from Barbara Dorris, a director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests:

"For five years, Twin Cities Catholic officials have hidden from police a cleric's repeated and devastating abusive sex crimes against a vulnerable young woman who sought his help. ... For years, bishops have misled parishioners about abusive priests, claiming that alleged new screening processes were helping to 'weed out' sexually troubled seminarians."

The Rev. Tom Reese, a priest with the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, D.C., has written extensively about priest sex abuse and said it's common for the church to send a priest to therapy after he's engaged in a sexual relationship with an adult, and then possibly let him return to ministry.

"The question is, 'Is it safe for him to return to ministry?'" Reese said. "Our instinct in the church is to always try and salvage someone. The instinct is to try save the person. But that has to be balanced with protecting the people of God. We haven't been terribly good at balancing that in the church."

Archdiocese spokesman McGrath said no complaints or incidents have been reported over the ensuing years of Wenthe's ministry.

At Nativity Catholic School, parents received assurances that none of the allegations against the former associate pastor involved inappropriate interaction with children. School Principal Kate Wollan wrote a letter to parents saying the Rev. Patrick Hipwell would address the situation in talks at all weekend masses. Hipwell wrote a letter to parishioners asking for prayers of consolation, healing, justice and mercy.

Rose French • 612-673-4352 Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213 Pat Pheifer • 651-298-1551

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