The Minnesota Court of Appeals has apparently narrowed the ability of prosecutors to try clergy charged with having sexual relationships with people who seek religious or spiritual advice.
The court ordered a new trial for Christopher Wenthe, a priest who was convicted last year of having sex with a 21-year old woman. A jury convicted him of sexual assault under Minnesota’s third degree sexual conduct statute, which contains this clause in the definitions:
the sexual penetration occurred during a period of time in which the complainant was meeting on an ongoing basis with the actor to seek or receive religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private. Consent by the complainant is not a defense;
But the prosecutor in the case, in attempting to show Wenthe held power over the woman, introduced the Roman Catholic Church’s doctrine on the religious authority of priests, chastity, and the church’s “moral prohibition on engaging in sexual reltionships.” The prosecutor also provided testimony from a church staff member about the archdiocese’s “emphasis on maintaining boundaries with parishioners.”
That’s too much religion, the Court of Appeals said, noting it “presents a serious risk of excessive government entanglement” in religion. It said the prosecutor provided the jury with “religious standards for judging (Wenthe’s) conduct. “It invited the jury to determine appellant’s guilt on the basis of his violation of Roman Catholic doctrine, his breaking of the priestly vows of celibacy, and his abuse of the spiritual authority bestowed on Roman Catholic priests.”
Wenthe was charged in the incidents that took place while he was serving at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul. At the time of his arrest, he was pastor of the Delano Catholic Community.