Dark night of the stole

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2011 - 4:53 PM

Last week's conviction of the Rev. Christopher Wenthe, formerly of the Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul, wasn't just another case of criminal sexual conduct by a Catholic priest. It's also the story of yet another archdiocese and archbishop failing to do the right thing.

It also captures the enormous moral and legal failing that exists within religious institutions when it comes to clergy who prey upon vulnerable adults for sex. When these cases come to light, bishops too often cast them as the "indiscretions" of two "consenting" adults.

As Wenthe's case vividly underscores, there's no such thing as mutual consent when a priest sexual exploits a vulnerable person who looks to him for spiritual care.

The victim, a new convert to Catholicism, was battling an eating disorder and the devastating effects of childhood sexual abuse when she met the priest.

After the woman told church officials about his conduct, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis sent Wenthe to "treatment" instead of reporting him to the police. He then returned to parish ministry. When the woman found out, she called the police herself.

I've covered clergy sexual abuse for more than two decades, and I cannot emphasize enough how much courage it takes for victims to stand up to church leaders. Thankfully, this brave woman persevered, and the jury had her back.

Wenthe's lawyer tried to paint his client as the victim of a wanton woman who thrusted herself sexually onto the priest.

For his part, Wenthe claimed to be comforting "a friend" when, among his string of inappropriate acts, he showed up at the young woman's apartment with Vaseline in search of anal sex.

Minnesota is fortunate to have a law that considers Wenthe's behavior criminal.

An egregious Pennsylvania case involved the Rev. Alan Wenrich, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. He resigned from the Hummelstown church he led in 2009 after offering to pay a woman he counseled for sex.

She declined his advances and went to police. Instead of taking the case to trial, prosecutors allowed Wenrich to participate in a yearlong "recovery" program.

The bishop never moved to defrock the pastor. In fact, after the year was over, he returned Wenrich to parish ministry.

 The move so shocked other Lutheran pastors that they signed a petition that led to Wenrich's ousting, though he was allowed to retire and keep his pastoral title.

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Susan Hogan is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

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