The Minnesota Supreme Court reinstated a St. Paul priest's sexual misconduct conviction Wednesday in a ruling that focused on whether the priest knew he was in a spiritual counseling session with his accuser when they had sex.
The 4-1 decision came in the case of Christopher Thomas Wenthe, who in 2011 was convicted in Ramsey County District Court of one count of clergy third-degree sexual misconduct involving a 21-year-old woman who said she considered him her spiritual adviser at all times, a claim he has disputed.
Last year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned Wenthe's conviction, saying it was unfair because of "the cumulative effect" of three errors the judge made in instructing the jury. Wednesday's ruling rejected the appellate court's reasoning.
Wenthe, now 50, who was serving as a priest at two Delano, Minn., churches when he was arrested in early 2011, was associate pastor at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul in September 2003 when he met the victim, a 21-year-old convert to Catholicism.
The woman asked him to be her regular confessor and he agreed, even though he had never played such a role before. She worshiped at his church, met him at a church event and regularly confessed to him. The initial sexual penetration occurred in Wenthe's private residence at Nativity of Our Lord.
Between their initial meeting and the end of the year, Wenthe and the woman spoke often, confiding in each other in person and on the phone, sharing dinners, watching movies at his apartment and driving to Wenthe's boyhood home to collect hunting gear. The accuser said "spiritual comfort" was always the purpose of their meetings. While Wenthe has never denied the relationship, he has argued that it did not occur in a spiritual-counseling context.
"We're sadly disappointed; heartbroken is a better word," Paul Engh, Wenthe's attorney, said Wednesday of the state Supreme Court's ruling. "We've lived in hope for better results."
Wenthe's career as a priest has been on hold since he was charged five years ago. Engh said it's unclear what Wenthe will do next.
In addition to reinstating Wenthe's conviction, the court's action stripped out a new requirement that the Appeals Court ruling had imposed on prosecutors. The lower court's decision had required them to prove that an accused cleric had knowledge that the accuser was expecting religious or spiritual advice, aid or comfort during any encounter that turned sexual.
Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who had expressed disappointment after the Appeals Court ruling, was effusive Wednesday in his praise of the state Supreme Court's ruling, calling it thoughtful and clear on the issue of whether a victim was seeking religious or spiritual advice, aid or comfort.
"A different conclusion would have made it almost impossible to apply criminal sexual conduct laws against clergy members who abuse their position of power and authority," Choi said.
Page strongly dissents
Justice G. Barry Anderson wrote the 25-page decision, which was signed by Chief Justice Lorie Gildea and Justices David Lillehaug and David Stras.
Justice Alan Page wrote a 15-page dissent, in which he argued that prosecutors should be required to show that a defendant clergy member knew or had reason to know that a get-together was supposed to be centered on spiritual counseling.
Wenthe already has served his one-year sentence in the workhouse. He is required to register with the state as a predatory offender.
The high court's majority opinion and Page's dissent focused most attention on the requirement about a priest's understanding of the nature of his meeting with a parishioner.
Page said he would have sent the case back down for a new trial, calling the majority's analysis "simplistic." The majority's "interpretation of the clergy sexual conduct statute may result in a guilty verdict based entirely on what the complainant thought," he wrote.
"Like possession of a knife, which is not criminal until it occurs within a school zone, sexual penetration by a member of the clergy is not criminal unless and until it coincides with a meeting at which spiritual counsel is sought or received," Page wrote.
The woman didn't report the allegations against Wenthe to police until seven years later, in April 2010. "She explained that the delay was due to her dissatisfaction with the way the diocese handled her disclosure of the sexual conduct," the court said.
In a prepared statement, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) praised Wednesday's ruling and encouraged Interim Archbishop Bernard Hebda to use church resources to reach out to others who may have been victimized by Wenthe.
"Wenthe preys on vulnerable, devout women who have been raised since birth to respect and revere allegedly celibate priests who posture as Christ's representatives on Earth," SNAP leader Frank Meuers wrote. "That's why it's illegal in Minnesota and other states for clerics to sexually exploit congregants."
Justices Christopher Dietzen and Wilhelmina Wright didn't participate in the case. As is customary, no reason was given.
Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747