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State v. Wenthe

Supreme Court of Minnesota

November 6, 2013

State of Minnesota, Appellant/Cross-Respondent,
v.
Christopher Thomas Wenthe, Respondent/Cross-Appellant.

Office of Appellate Courts Court of Appeals

Lori Swanson, Attorney General, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and John J. Choi, Ramsey County Attorney, Peter R. Marker, Assistant County Attorney, Saint Paul, Minnesota, for appellant/cross-respondent.

Paul Engh, Minneapolis, Minnesota, for respondent/cross-appellant.

SYLLABUS

1. Minnesota Statutes § 609.344, subdivision 1(l)(i) (2012), does not facially violate the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

2. Because religion was not excessively entangled in respondent's trial for a charge brought under Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i), respondent failed to prove that the statute as applied violated the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution.

OPINION

GILDEA, Chief Justice.

In this case, we address whether Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i) (2012) (clergy-sexual-conduct statute), violates the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution. A Ramsey County jury found respondent/cross-appellant Christopher Wenthe guilty of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i), based on a sexual relationship between Wenthe, a Roman Catholic priest, and a parishioner. The court of appeals reversed Wenthe's conviction, holding that although Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i), was not facially unconstitutional, it violated the Establishment Clause as applied to Wenthe. Because we conclude that the clergy-sexual-conduct statute does not facially violate the Establishment Clause and that Wenthe did not prove that the clergy-sexual-conduct statute as applied violates the Establishment Clause, we affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand to the court of appeals.

Wenthe was a Roman Catholic priest at a Saint Paul, Minnesota, parish. In the summer of 2003, Wenthe met A.F., a parishioner, at a picnic. A.F. gave Wenthe a ride back to the parish where they discussed some of A.F.'s personal struggles. A.F., who was sexually abused as a child and suffered from bulimia, sought guidance from a "spiritual director" at the parish in the fall of 2003. The spiritual director advised A.F. to obtain both a trained lay therapist and a "regular confessor" to help her deal with her eating disorder. A.F. approached Wenthe to be her "regular confessor." Wenthe agreed and, in October 2003, he heard A.F.'s confession. According to A.F., Wenthe heard her confession anonymously three or four more times after the October 2003 confession. It is undisputed that over time Wenthe and A.F. formed a friendship, spent time together in social contexts, shared their personal concerns and struggles, and talked for hours about theological matters.

One evening in November 2003, A.F. invited Wenthe to her apartment to celebrate his birthday. They talked from 10:30 p.m. until 6:00 a.m. The conversation centered on topics of religion and sexuality, including the Theology of the Body, a commentary by Pope John Paul II. They also discussed A.F.'s abuse as a child.

The next evening, Wenthe and A.F. met in Wenthe's private quarters in the church rectory. The parties disputed the purpose for this meeting. A.F. testified that she met with a lay therapist for the first time that day, an experience she found overwhelming. A.F. said that she wanted aid and comfort after her lay therapy session and so she decided to accept the offer she said that Wenthe made the previous night to "call him after" her session. Wenthe disagreed that A.F. met him at his invitation. He testified instead that he and A.F. simply agreed to get together in his private quarters later that day. While they disagreed over the purpose of the meeting, both Wenthe and A.F. testified that they engaged in sexual conduct that evening.

Thereafter, A.F. and Wenthe engaged in sexual conduct about once every 2 weeks for approximately a year. A.F. testified that during that time she still considered Wenthe to be her priest and asserted that their faith was the basis of the relationship. Wenthe testified that their relationship changed "very quickly" and that he was not her priest during the period of the sexual relationship. The last sexual encounter occurred in early February 2005.

In late summer 2005, a friend of A.F. reported the sexual relationship between Wenthe and A.F. to the archdiocese. This report prompted A.F. to meet with an advocate from the clergy-abuse program and a priest who works within the diocese to prevent clergy misconduct. Later, A.F. met with the archbishop and a bishop and sent a letter to the archbishop detailing her relationship with Wenthe. A.F. testified that her motivation for dealing with this matter through the church was to make sure "that this couldn't happen to anyone else." A.F. testified that the church assured her that there were "things in place that would ensure that . . . Wenthe was getting help." The priest who met with A.F. interviewed Wenthe regarding the relationship, and this priest testified that Wenthe told him that he had an illicit relationship with A.F., and that he had provided some pastoral care to her.

A.F. testified that she was comfortable with how the church handled the situation, in part because Wenthe was only an assistant priest. But A.F. became concerned in 2009, when she discovered that Wenthe had been assigned to be the parish priest in Delano. A.F. sent letters to the new archbishop and, after the church told A.F. that Wenthe had been rehabilitated, she went to the police.

The State charged Wenthe with one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(ii) (2012), which prohibits sexual conduct between a clergy member and a parishioner that occurs while the parishioner is meeting with the clergy member on an ongoing basis for spiritual counsel. The State subsequently amended the complaint to include a second count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, in violation of Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i), which prohibits sexual conduct between a clergy member and a parishioner that occurs during the course of a single meeting in which the parishioner sought or received spiritual counsel.

Wenthe filed a motion to dismiss the complaint, arguing that Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l) (2012), was unconstitutional, both facially and as applied in this case, because it violated the Establishment Clause. The district court denied the motion. Wenthe then filed a motion in limine, seeking to prevent the State from using evidence of Catholic Church doctrine and procedures. At a pretrial hearing, the State assured the district court that it would not present evidence regarding Catholic Church doctrine or internal church procedures regarding how the church responds to allegations of abuse. At trial, however, the State presented some evidence that related to Catholic Church doctrine.

The jury acquitted Wenthe of the count alleging sexual contact while A.F. was meeting with Wenthe on an ongoing basis for spiritual counsel. See Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(ii). But the jury found Wenthe guilty of the count alleging sexual conduct "during the course of a meeting" in which religious advice or assistance was sought or received in private. See Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i). The district court convicted Wenthe and sentenced him to 57 months in prison, stayed execution of the sentence, and placed Wenthe on probation for 15 years.

Wenthe appealed, arguing that Minn. Stat. § 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i), violated the Establishment Clause on its face and as applied to him. The court of appeals held that the clergy-sexual-conduct statute is not facially unconstitutional. State v. Wenthe, 822 N.W.2d 822, 826 (Minn.App. 2012). But the court of appeals found that the statute was unconstitutionally applied to Wenthe because religion was excessively entangled in his trial, and the court reversed Wenthe's conviction. Id. at 826-30. We granted the State's petition for review on the issue of whether the clergy-sexual-conduct statute violated the Establishment Clause as applied to Wenthe and Wenthe's cross-petition for review on the issue of whether the clergy-sexual-conduct statute facially violates the Establishment Clause.

Whether a statute is unconstitutional is a question of law we review de novo. State v. Wicklund, 589 N.W.2d 793, 797 (Minn. 1999). Minnesota statutes are presumed constitutional and we exercise our authority to declare a statute unconstitutional with "extreme caution and only when absolutely necessary." In re Haggerty, 448 N.W.2d 363, 364 (Minn. 1989). Because Wenthe challenges the constitutionality of the clergy-sexual-conduct statute, he bears the burden of ...


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