The Minnesota Court of Appeals on Nov. 26 reversed the conviction of the Rev. Christopher Wenthe, former pastor of the Delano Catholic Community, for third degree criminal sexual conduct and sent back his case to District Court for a new trial.
Court of Appeals judges said the District Court must address outstanding issues in the case, including the manner in which evidence was presented and instructions to the jury.
Wenthe already has served eight months in the workhouse — part of a 57-month sentence. A portion of the sentence was stayed.
A Ramsey County jury in November 2011 convicted Wenthe of engaging in illegal sexual conduct with a 21-year-old woman in November or December of 2003, during a time when she sought spiritual advice and counsel from him. The jury acquitted Wenthe of a second charge that he engaged in continuing illegal sexual conduct with the victim until February 2005. The acts took place at a church and in living quarters of both Wenthe and the victim.
At the time of the incident, Wenthe was a priest at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul. The matter was reported to the Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis and St. Paul in September 2005. The Archdiocese told the victim that she could report the matter to the police, but she chose not to do so, according to a statement from the Archdiocese.
After Wenthe underwent psychological assessment and treatment, he was allowed to return to active ministry. He served as parochial vicar at St. Michael’s and St. Mary’s parishes in Stillwater. Then in 2009 he became pastor of St. Joseph’s and St. Peter’s Catholic Churches in Delano. In 2010, the victim reported to St. Paul Police incidents that occurred between 2003 and 2005. Police arrested Wenthe in Delano in February 2011.
Wenthe and his attorneys appealed his 2011 conviction — contending that the state criminal sexual conduct statute was applied in a way that violated the Establishment Clause, the part of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that pertains to freedom of religion. Wenthe’s attorneys argued that his conviction was based upon religious evidence regarding Roman Catholic doctrine, internal church policies and church views of the priesthood.
Court of Appeals judges looked at the part of the Minnesota criminal sexual conduct statute that makes it illegal for clergy to engage in sex with a person who comes to him or her for spiritual advice and counsel. The court decided that the law does not violate the Establishment Clause on its face.
Then the court looked specifically at Wenthe’s case. “Because appellant’s (Wenthe’s) case was based on evidence that was excessively entangled in matters of religion, the application of the clergy sexual conduct statute violated the Establishment Clause in this case,” the court said in its written opinion. Judges said this was their reason for overturning the conviction and remanding the case of a new trial.
“The religious evidence provided the jury with religious standards for judging appellant’s conduct,” the court said. “It invited the jury to determine appellant’s guilt on the basis of his violation of Roman Catholic doctrine, his breaking of priestly vows of celibacy and his abuse of the spiritual authority bestowed on Roman Catholic priests.”
As the court outlined the facts of Wenthe’s case, it talked about how he and the woman involved met in social situations in addition to situations related to his role as a priest. “It is undisputed that a friendship developed between A.F. (the plaintiff in Wenthe’s case) and the appellant (Wenthe) in ensuing weeks,” the court said. “They shared their personal concerns and struggles and often talked for hours about theological matters.”