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Minnesota Supreme Court reinstates priest's criminal sexual conduct conviction

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A St. Paul priest whose criminal sexual misconduct conviction was overturned by Minnesota's Court of Appeals had his sentence reinstated by the state's Supreme Court Wednesday.

The Minnesota Supreme Court, in a 4-1 decision, ruled that Christopher Thomas Wenthe's 2011 conviction of third-degree criminal sexual conduct was fair and should be reinstated.

The conviction said Wenthe, formerly affiliated with Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, violated the state’s clergy sex statute when he had a sexual relationship with a 21-year-old female parishioner.

The law makes it a felony for a priest to have sexual contact with anyone who is seeking or receiving spiritual advice or comfort in private.

Wenth admitted during his trial in Ramsey County District Court to having a relationship with the woman. She testified she confided in Wenthe about her struggles with an eating disorder and previous sexual abuse, but the priest maintained that sexual conduct did not occur while the woman was seeking spiritual aid.

A timeline

This case has been bandied around the state's courts for years now, and the Minnesota Supreme Court has actually weighed in on it before. Here's a brief timeline to get you up to speed.

2003-05: Sexual contact between Wenthe and the woman begins in November of 2003 and lasts about 18 months.

2005: A friend reports the sexual contact to the archdiocese.

2010: The woman, after learning Wenthe was assigned to a parish in Delano, reports the sexual contact to police.

2011: Wenthe is charged with two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for what the state says was engaging in sexual contact with someone who came to him seeking spiritual counsel. A Ramsey County jury convicts Wenthe on one count of criminal sexual conduct. Wenthe appeals.

2012: The Minnesota Court of Appeals overturns the conviction, saying the evidence was "entangled in matters of religion" and the conviction violated the First Amendment, separating church and state.

2013: The Minnesota Supreme Court overruled that decision and upheld Wenthe's conviction. The case then went back to the Court of Appeals to deal with some other issues that weren't addressed.

2014: The Court of Appeals takes up the case again, and for the second time overturns the conviction, this time saying three errors made during the trial resulted in an unfair conviction.

2015: Once again, the Minnesota Supreme Court overrules that court's decision. Read on for the reasoning.

The Supreme Court's decision

The appeals court said there were three errors made during the trial that meant the verdict wasn't fair.

  1. It said the jury wasn't told they must come to a unanimous decision that Wenthe and the woman had sexual contact during a specific meeting.
  2. It claimed the jury wasn't told the state had to prove Wenthe knew the meeting where sexual contact occurred was held for "spiritual guidance," and not just a social or romantic meeting.
  3. It said the district court's decision to not allow evidence of the accuser's sexual history to be submitted by Wenthe's team – despite her past sexual history being brought up by the prosecution – was also an error.

All of those mistakes, the Court of Appeals ruled, means Wenthe didn't get a fair trial.

The Supreme Court addressed all three, and said the Court of Appeals was incorrect on all counts.

The ruling, written by Justice G. Barry Anderson, says the unanimity directive didn't affect Wenthe's rights, and the jurors were given a window of time to consider, not specific dates.

Anderson says the criminal sexual conduct law does not require the prosecution to prove a clergy member knew a victim was there specifically seeking spiritual advice.

And he says denying the motion to submit evidence of the woman's sexual history was not an abuse of the court's discretion.

Justice Alan Page wrote the dissent, saying he was "particularly troubled" by the court's decision that a clergy member doesn't need to know the purpose of a meeting – be it for spiritual guidance or something else.

Wenthe had been sentenced to a year in the Ramsey County workhouse and was released early for good behavior.

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