Court orders new trial for priest

Published 11:28 am Tuesday, April 8, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Monday reversed a sexual misconduct conviction and ordered a new trial for a St. Paul priest accused of having sex with a woman who was seeking his spiritual advice.

The 22-page ruling said the lower court made several errors during Christopher Wenthe’s trial.

Wenthe was convicted in 2011 of third-degree criminal sexual conduct after a woman reported the sexual conduct. State law makes it a felony for clergy members to have sex with people they are spiritually advising.

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The incidents started in late 2003 while Wenthe was working at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul.

Wenthe did not dispute that the two had an 18-month relationship, but he denied that the encounters occurred while he was providing spiritual aid. He was sentenced to a year in jail and was released after eight months.

Evidence at trial included at least three possible meetings from November to December 2003 in which Wenthe and the woman engaged in sexual conduct. A three-judge panel of the Appeals Court said Monday the trial judge should have told jurors that to convict Wenthe, they had to unanimously agree on which meeting constituted a crime.

The ruling, written by Judge Gary Crippen, said the nature of the meeting is essential to win a conviction of clergy sexual misconduct, and “appellant is only guilty of a crime if the meeting is one in which spiritual or religious advice, aid, or comfort was sought or received.”

In addition, Crippen wrote, because there was conflicting testimony, prosecutors had to prove that Wenthe knew the purpose of the meeting was spiritual or religious in nature.

The Appeals Court also said the trial judge erred in barring evidence of the woman’s sexual history, saying such evidence was allowed once prosecutors elicited testimony in which she portrayed herself as sexually inexperienced.

In a statement, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi called the decision “a tough one to accept.” He said his biggest concern is that the appeals court has introduced a new element to future criminal sexual conduct cases by requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant knew the victim was seeking spiritual or religious advice.

“I do not believe that public policy considerations or the legislature ever intended this outcome,” Choi said. He said his office is reviewing its options.

Wenthe’s attorney, Paul Engh, said Wenthe is thankful for the decision. If prosecutors don’t ask the Supreme Court to review the case, he said, his client will get a new trial.

Wenthe remains a priest but is not in active ministry, pending the resolution of this case, Engh said.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals had reversed Wenthe’s conviction once before, in 2012, but the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the state law. The case was sent back to the Appeals Court to resolve these other issues.