The Rev. Christopher Wenthe was newly ordained and second in charge at Nativity Church in St. Paul, one of the wealthiest and most venerable Catholic parishes in the Twin Cities, when he allegedly repeatedly engaged in sexual misconduct with a young woman who had come to him for guidance, according to criminal charges.
Wenthe, 46, currently serving as pastor of St. Peter's and St. Joseph's parishes in Delano, was arrested and charged Thursday in Ramsey County District Court with one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct. He was jailed in lieu of $15,000 bail. If convicted, he faces a likely sentence of four to almost five years in prison.
In a written statement, Dennis McGrath, communications director of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the archdiocese learned of "the matter" in September 2005. The woman was offered counseling and therapy, he said, adding that she was told she could go to police "but chose not to do so [then]."
However, the complaint details what the woman did report to St. Paul police in April 2010 and contains numerous excerpts from a letter dated Oct. 2, 2006, that she wrote to "a high-ranking member" of the archdiocese about the abuse.
The archdiocese's statement said Wenthe underwent a psychological evaluation and treatment and, in August 2006, was "allowed to return to active ministry with certain conditions and restrictions."
"No complaints or incidents have been made over the past five years of his ministry," the statement said.
Invited to apartment
The woman, now 29, said the abuse happened between Nov. 1, 2003, and Feb. 28, 2005. She said she had been sexually abused as a child and suffered from bulimia.
She said she converted to Catholicism in 2003 and met Wenthe when he spoke at her initiation class at Nativity. He also came to a picnic honoring graduates of the class and, soon after, became her regular confessor.
At her first confession, Wenthe took her to a private sitting room adjacent to his bedroom in the rectory. There, she told him about her earlier sexual abuse and that she had "a tendency to disassociate when confronted with sexual advances," the complaint said.
The woman said her first sexual contact with Wenthe happened after he invited her to his apartment after she had attended her first session with a counselor to begin dealing with the childhood sexual abuse and eating disorder.
He embraced her and, "Immediately the situation became inappropriate," the woman's letter said. Then he asked her to perform oral sex.
"I remember pleading with him that we should stop," the letter said. "He made me feel like I had done this to him and that I was obligated to finish the job. After I complied, he turned from me, trembling and crying, repeating over and over that we were going to hell and his priesthood was over; that God could never forgive this, then he apologized."
Letter to archdiocese
Wenthe's alleged behavior fell into a pattern of remorse, then re-engagement, the complaint said. He had sexual contact with the woman about every two weeks.
The woman told police that as the relationship escalated, her eating disorder became more severe. In 2004, she went to Arizona for bulimia treatment, the complaint said. The night before she left, Wenthe came to her house, sodomized her, then left when she said she could not continue with it, her letter said.
Yet when she returned from Arizona, Wenthe's alleged contact with her began again. On Aug. 31, 2005, the woman whom the victim had stayed with in Arizona also wrote to the archdiocese about the priest's sexual relationship.
Police first talked to Wenthe in August 2010, the complaint said. He acknowledged his sexual relationship with the woman. He said the archdiocese had confronted him about his "inappropriate relationship with her" and sent him to treatment for a "generalized anxiety disorder."
Phone messages left at Nativity Church were not returned on Thursday. George Murphy, chairman of the parish council, said he did not wish to comment.
A woman who answered the phone at the Delano Catholic Community, said to call the archdiocese.
McGrath said Wenthe was ordained in 2003. He left Nativity parish in June 2005, then held positions in Zumbrota, Pine Island and Stillwater before moving to Delano.
"The Archdiocese sincerely regrets any pain or suffering that the woman may have endured and continues to offer her our assistance and care," the archdiocese's statement said.
Pat Pheifer • 612-741-4992