State Supreme Court ruling due on priest sex law

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The Minnesota Supreme Court is expected to soon rule on the constitutionality of a state law that makes it a felony for clergy to engage in sexual conduct with a parishioner who seeks spiritual advice or comfort.

The high court in June heard oral arguments in the case, which focuses on the conduct of the Rev. Christopher Wenthe, a St. Paul priest, who was convicted in 2011 of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, under the state's clergy sexual conduct statute.

Rulings typically come within four or five months, the Star Tribune notes.

Wenthe's lawyers had argued that the statute violates the Constitution, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The priest formerly at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church had acknowledged a relationship with a 21-year-old woman over 18 months, and admitted to sexual conduct, but he denied it happened while she was seeking spiritual aid. His lawyers acknowledged that the relationship was forbidden by the church – but they said it was legal.

Wenthe had been sentenced to a year in the Ramsey County workhouse and was released early for good behavior, but he appealed the conviction. In November 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals overturned the conviction. (Here's the appeals court's ruling.) At that point, Wenthe and the Ramsey County attorney’s office asked the Supreme Court to rule on it.

The case would help set a course for other cases, including that of a Maplewood priest who is under scrutiny for an alleged affair this year with a married parishioner, the Star Tribune reports. He has not been charged.

The ruling is expected as the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis grapples with a number of accusations that the church did not appropriately handle allegations of sexual misconduct by its clergy.

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