Listen Minn. appeals court rules too much religious doctrine used to convict priest of sexual misconduct
Nov 26, 2012
The Minnesota Court of Appeals has ordered a new trial for a Roman Catholic priest convicted of sexual assault.
The facts of the case are not disputed. Last year a Ramsey County jury found Christopher Wenthe guilty of having sex with a woman who had sought spiritual counsel for an eating disorder. But the appeals court ruled that prosecutors relied too heavily on Catholic doctrine, rather than secular law, when making their case.
A woman said that in 2003 when she was 21, she sought spiritual counseling from Wenthe, who served at her parish in St. Paul. The two struck up a friendship, which evolved into a sexual relationship that lasted for more than a year. She went to police in 2010, about five years after the sexual relationship ended.
Under church law Roman Catholic priests take a vow of celibacy when they are ordained. Minnesota law treats clergy members of all religions like pyschotherapists, and prohibits them from having sexual contact with people who seek their counsel. It is a felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Wenthe's attorney Paul Engh argues the law should be struck down as an unconstitutional violation of church-state separation. The appeals court did not do that. But they did say that Ramsey County prosecutors talked excessively about church doctrine — the religious authority of priests over parishioners, for example — than state law.
The appellate ruling should serve as a warning to those who prosecute similar cases in the future, Engh said.
"I think the opinion severely restricts the presentation of religiosity into a prosecution like this," Engh said. "And for that reason it's a good decision."
Prosecutions of clergy sexual misconduct involving counseling are rare in Minnesota. There have been fewer than a dozen in the last 20 years. But there is precedent.
In 2007, the Minnesota Supreme Court ordered a new trial for John Bussmann, a priest from Rogers convicted of having sex with female parishioners who had sought his guidance. In a split decision, the high court upheld the law but also said the prosecution talked excessively about the power of priests over laity in Catholic doctrine. Bussmann was convicted again the following year.
Tom Berg, professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas, said in the Wenthe case the appeals court was on well-worn legal ground when it reaffirmed that clergy may be treated like secular counselors in sex abuse cases. And as the high court did, Berg said the appellate judges left prosecutors little wiggle room.
"If the state is going to prosecute those cases, it had better confine itself — the court is saying — to prosecuting for that relationship and proving for a sex act within that relationship and proving the relationship," Berg said. "It can't go further and try to bolster the prosecution or increase the odds of conviction by showing that the priest violated his church's own standards."
In a written statement, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he is disappointed in the ruling. Choi said this is the type of circumstance lawmakers intended to criminalize when they included clergy in the criminal sexual conduct laws in 1993.
A spokesman for the county attorney's office says prosecutors may decide this week whether to appeal to the state supreme court, or proceed with a retrial.