Jurors acquitted the Rev. Mark A. Huberty on Monday of two counts of criminal sexual conduct for allegedly starting a sexual relationship with a married parishioner he had been counseling.
They returned the verdict after deliberating for about 1 ½ hours Friday and an hour Monday, clearing Huberty on one count each of fourth and fifth-degree criminal sexual conduct.
Dressed in a black clerical suit and collar, Huberty covered his face with one hand and wept as Ramsey County District Judge Patrick Diamond read the verdicts.
One of Huberty's former parishioners in the courtroom quietly clapped her hands, while her husband pumped his fist in the air.
Huberty, 44, left the courthouse without taking questions. But he expressed his relief in a written statement.
"I never understood why the prosecution pursued this so aggressively," he said in the statement. "A lot of unnecessary harm was caused for a lot of people, including the people of my parish and the complainant herself.
"Now it's time to heal."
Huberty, who added that he looked forward to working again as a priest, will remain on leave from active ministry until a standards board for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis finishes reviewing the case, according to a statement issued by Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens.
The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) issued a statement expressing disappointment with the verdicts, noting that there is an "inherent power imbalance" between clergy and parishioners.
"[The woman] was raised since birth to respect and revere priests and consider them holy, celibate men of God," said David Clohessy, director of SNAP. "So there can't be a relationship of equals. It's always the duty of the powerful to respect the boundaries."
Huberty was charged under a law that prohibits clergy from engaging in a sexual relationship with someone they are advising spiritually.
The two met when he was pastor at Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Maplewood. The case against Huberty hinged on whether his relationship with her had transitioned, as his attorney insisted, from a priest-penitent dynamic to that of a personal relationship.
Prosecutor Therese Galatowitsch — an assistant Hennepin County attorney who handled the case because Ramsey County Attorney John Choi went to high school with Huberty — told jurors that the priest launched an affair with the woman in January 2013, more than four years after becoming her spiritual adviser.
Galatowitsch said the affair included sexual touching and consensual kissing, consent not being a defense against the charge. She argued that Huberty chose the woman because her depression and anxiety made her an easy target, and that he used his status as her spiritual adviser to his benefit.
Huberty's attorney, Paul Engh, said that the woman initiated the physical contact. He said that once Huberty asked her in January 2013 to be his "friend," the dynamic in their relationship changed and he could no longer be guilty of an inappropriate relationship.
"This was a misunderstanding between two adults," Engh said in a statement Monday.
During closing arguments Friday, Engh read an e-mail the woman wrote that said, "I am aggressively pushing the physical …"
Engh told jurors that the woman was "hustling" Huberty and only reported the sexual relationship to police to save her marriage and family.
"The e-mails were inconsistent with her trial testimony," Engh said Monday.
A juror, who declined to give his name, said he felt that both parties were at fault for starting the affair. He did not clarify how jurors weighed the fact that the woman's consent could not be used to clear Huberty, but did say that her e-mails factored heavily into their decisions.
Joseph Daly, professor emeritus at the Hamline University School of Law, said that the jury likely agreed with Engh's argument that the relationship had changed.
Another factor that could have been at play, Daly said, is that priests are difficult to prosecute because of their status. It's a hurdle Galatowitsch tackled Friday, telling jurors not to let Huberty's priestly dress influence their reading of the law and evidence.
"Despite all the negative press … we still think of [priests] as important, special people," Daly said. "Whenever I see a priest, a rabbi or an imam, I say, 'Oh, there goes a special person.' "
Charlie and Cathy Dobihal, former parishioners who showed up to support Huberty, said they were pleased with the verdicts.
"I believed in his innocence from the very beginning," said Cathy Dobihal, who had testified as a defense witness.
"It's been very hard on the parish," Charlie Dobihal said.