Supreme Court reinstates priest's sex misconduct conviction

The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated a sexual misconduct conviction for a St. Paul priest accused of having sex with a woman who was seeking his spiritual advice.

The Rev. Christopher Wenthe, 50, was convicted in 2011 of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for having sex with the woman at a meeting in which she sought counseling in 2003. He was acquitted of a count that alleged ongoing clergy sexual misconduct.

State law makes it a felony for clergy members to have sex with people they are spiritually advising. Wenthe didn't dispute that he and the woman had a relationship for more than a year, but he denied the encounters occurred while he was providing spiritual aid.

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Last year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned Wenthe's conviction and ordered a new trial. But the Supreme Court reversed that decision Wednesday. Among other things, the justices said the clergy sexual conduct statute doesn't require that a clergy member know that the other person is seeking or receiving spiritual advice.

Justice Alan Page dissented, saying the underlying conduct in the case — consenting sex between two adults — is not inherently criminal so "without spiritual counsel, there is no crime. The State must therefore prove that the clergy member knew or at least had reason to know, that spiritual counsel was being sought."

The majority said that regardless of Wenthe's belief at the time of the encounters, he "certainly had notice that his actions were potentially criminal."

Tim O'Malley, director of ministerial standards and safe environment for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said Wenthe has been on leave from active ministry since he was charged in 2011 and will remain on leave pending an internal review of his clerical status.

Wenthe's attorney, Paul Engh, said the defense was heartbroken and "we've lived in the hope for a better result." He said he will encourage his client to petition the U.S. Supreme Court for review.

In a statement, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he was pleased by the decision, especially on the point of whether a prosecutor must prove a clergy member knew a victim was seeking counsel.

"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.

The Supreme Court also found that the lower court did not abuse its discretion when it denied Wenthe's motion to admit evidence of the woman's sexual history.

In addition, evidence at trial included at least two possible meetings during which Wenthe and the woman engaged in sexual conduct. The trial judge told the jury that their verdict must be unanimous, but didn't tell jurors that they must unanimously agree on which encounter violated the law.

The Supreme Court found that this error was unlikely to affect the verdict, so Wenthe's rights were not violated.

It's not the first time the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court in this case: The Minnesota Court of Appeals had reversed Wenthe's conviction once before in 2012, but the Supreme Court upheld the state law and sent the case back to the appeals court to resolve the issues that were ruled on Wednesday.