New trial for St. Paul priest convicted under clergy abuse law

Christopher Thomas Wenthe. Photo:  Ramsey County sheriff's office.

For the second time, the Minnesota Court of Appeals has overturned the conviction of a St. Paul priest and ordered a new trial on charges he took advantage of a vulnerable woman he was counseling.

Christopher Wenthe admitted at his trial that he had sex with a 21-year-old member of the Nativity of Our Lord parish while she was being counseled about her struggles with an eating disorder and previous sexual abuse.

The Court of Appeals originally ordered a new trial for Christopher Wenthe in 2012 after it found Ramsey County prosecutors injected too much religious doctrine into the trial, presenting “ a serious risk of excessive government entanglement” in religion.

The victory was short lived for the priest. Last November, the Minnesota Supreme Court overruled the lower court, saying it’s unlikely he was convicted by jurors because he violated church law, more so than a criminal statute.

But the Supreme Court sent the case back to the Court of Appeals to address other problems. Third-degree criminal sexual conduct in Minnesota “requires proof of sexual conduct during a single meeting in which religious advice, aid, or comfort is sought.” The jury in the original case did not identify which of several occasions of sex between Wenthe and the woman constituted the crime.

“Because the nature of the meeting is essential for a conviction of clergy sexual conduct, and trial testimony described three possible meetings within the relevant period, the district court’s instructions may have led the jurors to believe that they did not have to agree on the act that satisfied the single-meeting element,” Judge Gary Crippen wrote in today’s decision. “Thus, the district court erred by failing to instruct the jurors that they must unanimously agree on the single meeting.”

The date of the sex is important because the fact the woman engaged in consensual sex with the priest isn’t a valid defense under the clergy abuse laws in Minnesota.

“Because the spiritual or religious nature or purpose of the meeting is what makes the sexual conduct a crime, the statute requires proof that a defendant had a particular mental state,” Judge Crippen wrote. “Because there was disputed testimony about the purpose of the meetings, the failure to instruct the jury that, to find appellant guilty, the state had to prove appellant must know the religious or spiritual nature or purpose of the meeting may very well have affected the verdict.”

The priest also claimed in his appeal that he was denied the opportunity to provide information about the woman’s sexual history. The district court limited the testimony to evidence about the woman’s abuse as a child.

“During closing argument, the prosecutor also referred to A.F. as ‘naïve, vulnerable, inexperienced,’ compared to appellant, who had been in adult sexual relationships before he became a priest,” Crippen said, indicating that since prosecutors brought up the woman’s sexual history, the attorney for the priest had the right to ask her about it on cross examination.

Here’s the full opinion.