A priest accused of violating state law by allegedly having a sexual relationship with an adult parishioner will ask a Ramsey County judge on Monday to dismiss his felony criminal charge.
The Rev. Christopher Wenthe was charged in February with third-degree criminal sexual conduct after a woman reported to police that Wenthe took advantage of his position and her trust in him by engaging in a sexual relationship that lasted for more than a year.
Paul Engh, Wenthe's attorney, filed a motion arguing that the state law prohibiting a clergy member from having sex with a person who is seeking or receiving "religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private" is unconstitutional. In court records, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office said the law is constitutional and has been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
District Judge Margaret Marrinan will hear arguments from both sides Monday.
"Any minister who has sex with anybody may be in trouble under this statute," Engh said last week. "It's an overly broad attempt to regulate sexual behavior."
Ramsey County prosecutors argued that the law criminalizes "exploitive, abusive behavior." Paul Gustafson, a spokesman for the Ramsey County attorney's office, declined to comment, citing the pending hearing.
"Like statutes prohibiting sexual relationships between patients and doctors, therapists, counselors and social workers, the power imbalance created in the clergy-counselee relationship lies at the heart of criminalizing any sexual relationship that may develop," prosecutors wrote in a memorandum opposing Engh's motion.
Cases charged under the clergy sexual misconduct statute are rare. Since the law was passed in 1993, only 10 cases have been filed, according to state records. In 2007, the state Supreme Court ordered a new trial for another priest, John Bussmann, finding that too much evidence regarding Catholic Church doctrine had been presented during his trial. However, the court was evenly split on whether the law was unconstitutional so it affirmed an earlier ruling by the state Court of Appeals that upheld the law.
Andrew Eisenzimmer, chancellor for civil affairs with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the archdiocese has not taken a position on the constitutionality of the law. He said these types of cases are complex because of the restrictions on testimony about a particular religion's practices or beliefs.
"You're asking the jury to decide when a Catholic priest is actually counseling a follower," Eisenzimmer said.
Lasted longer than a year
The sexual relationship between Wenthe and the woman, now 29, began in November 2003 when Wenthe was a priest at Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul. The woman told police that her spiritual adviser recommended she find a regular confessor in the Catholic Church so she chose Wenthe, whom she had met while attending a Catholic initiation class. She said Wenthe heard her confession at least four times, while he told police he heard her confession only one time and it was before their sexual relationship began.
According to the criminal complaint, the woman said she had been sexually abused as a child and suffered from an eating disorder. The first sexual encounter took place at Wenthe's rectory apartment after the woman had met with her counselor.
"I remember pleading with him that we should stop," the woman wrote in a 2006 letter to an archdiocese official. "He made me feel like I had done this to him and that I was obligated to finish the job."
The woman told police the sexual encounters happened about every two weeks, sometimes after mass in Wenthe's apartment or in the sacristy where priests change into their ceremonial garments. She eventually left the state to enter treatment for her eating disorder and the sexual encounters ended in February 2005. Although she had alerted the archdiocese about the relationship in 2006, she didn't contact police until 2010.
In court records, Engh wrote that the relationship was "centered on mutual affection."
"The issue here is whether friendship is counseling or can you as a priest have a friendship that is not counseling," Engh said last week.
Engh said the meaning of confession and whether it is "religious or spiritual advice, aid or comfort in private" is key to his client's defense. Engh argued in his motion that in the event of a trial, expert testimony would be needed "to explain the tenets of the Catholic faith as to what role and authority [Father] Wenthe had as a priest." However, he pointed out that similar testimony was what caused the state Supreme Court to reverse the Bussmann conviction.
In its memo, the county attorney's office said the complaint against Wenthe doesn't address church doctrine and instead reveals "the extreme vulnerability of [the victim] and the power differential that existed."
Wenthe is currently on a leave of absence until the conclusion of the case, Engh said. After undergoing a psychological evaluation and treatment, the archdiocese allowed Wenthe to return to active ministry in 2006 but he resigned from his position at Delano Catholic Community earlier this year.
Lora Pabst • 612-916-7212