Supreme Court reinstates priest’s sex misconduct conviction

Published 10:49 am Thursday, June 25, 2015

MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota Supreme Court on Wednesday reinstated a sexualmisconduct 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.

Email newsletter signup

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.