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Wenthe v. Roy

United States District Court, D. Minnesota

December 11, 2017

Fr. Christopher Thomas Wenthe, Petitioner,
Tom Roy, Minnesota Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.

          Paul C. Engh, counsel for petitioner

          Peter R. Marker, Ramsey County Attorney's Office, counsel for respondent



         Father Christopher Thomas Wenthe filed a habeas corpus pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 2254 challenging the validity of his 2011 conviction for engaging in criminal sexual conduct. Fr. Wenthe was convicted of violating a Minnesota statute prohibiting a priest from having sexual contact with a parishioner while offering spiritual advice, aid, and comfort. Pet., ECF No. 1. In his habeas petition, Fr. Wenthe raises five separate claims for relief.

         First, Fr. Wenthe argues that his conviction violates due process because he was prohibited from presenting a complete defense through his own testimony. Id. at 31-39. Second, he asserts that his right to due process was violated when he was prohibited from fully cross examining the victim, A.F., about their mutual interest in a sexual relationship. Id. at 39-43. Third, he argues that his conviction violates due process because Minnesota's clergy sexual conduct statute does not require the State to prove that he acted with criminal intent. Id. at 42-49. Fourth, he claims that Minnesota's clergy sexual conduct statute violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Id. at 49-58. And finally, Fr. Wenthe alleges that his conviction violated his right to due process because the jurors were not properly instructed that they must reach a unanimous verdict. Id. at 58-61.

         Following Fr. Wenthe's conviction, the Minnesota appellate courts wrestled with his direct appeal, issuing a total of four separate decisions comprising seven distinct opinions.[1] Although the Court shares the concerns raised by individual Minnesota judges and justices regarding the issues presented by Fr. Wenthe in his habeas petition, the questions before the Court now are not how it would decide these issues in the first instance. Based on the very deferential standards applicable to habeas proceedings like this one, the Court cannot conclude that the judgment of the State court was contrary to or involved an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law as determined by the United States Supreme Court. Accordingly, the Court recommends that Fr. Wenthe's Petition be denied.

         Factual Background

         The Minnesota Supreme Court described how Fr. Wenthe and the alleged victim, identified by her initials A.F., came to know one another:

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.

Wenthe II, 839 N.W.2d at 85.

         After meeting and forming a friendship, A.F. and Fr. Wenthe met again on his birthday in November 2003 at her apartment. They talked throughout the night about a number of topics including religion and sexuality as well as AF's abuse as a child. Wenthe II, 839 N.W.2d at 85.

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.


         After this November 2003 meeting, Fr. Wenthe and A.F. “engaged in sexual conduct about once every 2 weeks for approximately a year.” Wenthe II, 839 N.W.2d at 85. A.F. considered Fr. Wenthe to still be her priest during this period, whereas Fr. Wenthe testified that their relationship had already changed so that he was no longer her priest at that time. Id. at 85-86. Fr. Wenthe and A.F. last had sexual contact in early February 2005. Id. at 86.

         Near the end of the summer in 2005, A.F.'s friend reported the relationship between A.F. and Fr. Wenthe to the archdiocese, and A.F. met with an advocate of a clergy-abuse program and with the archbishop and a bishop. Wenthe II, 839 N.W.2d at 86.

[A.F.] 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.

Id. Following her report to the police, the State charged Fr. Wenthe with violating Minnesota's clergy sexual conduct statute, 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.” Id.

         Trial and Appellate Issues

         Establishment Clause

         Before the trial commenced, Fr. Wenthe moved to dismiss the charges against him, arguing that the clergy sexual conduct statute violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Wenthe II, 839 N.W.2d at 86. The trial court denied the motion and Fr. Wenthe sought to preclude the State from offering any evidence of Catholic Church doctrine and procedures. Id. The State initially represented that it would not use any such evidence, but ultimately it did present “some evidence that related to Catholic Church doctrine.” Id. Fr. Wenthe appealed the trial court's denial of his Establishment Clause motion, and the Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately decided this issue against Fr. Wenthe when it issued its first decision in 2013, id. Fr. Wenthe seeks review of this issue in Ground 4 of his habeas petition.

         A.F.'s Sexual H istory and Conversations

         Also before his trial began, Fr. Wenthe sought an order in limine permitting him to testify about and to cross-examine A.F. regarding her past sexual practices, but the Court denied his motion. The State promised that “it would limit sexual-history evidence to the sexual abuse suffered by A.F. as a child, [but] at trial the State introduced evidence that A.F. was sexually inexperienced compared to Wenthe.” Wenthe IV, 865 N.W.2d at 298. Fr. Wenthe renewed his motion to admit evidence of A.F.'s sexual history. Id. He argued his testimony would “show the source of her sexual knowledge and . . . explain how the relationship became sexual.” Wenthe IV, 865 N.W.2d at 305. The trial court denied his motion again, finding that his proposed testimony and cross-examination violated Minnesota's rape shield law. Id. (citing the rape shield law, Minn. Stat. § 609.347, subd. 3).

         The Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with Fr. Wenthe that the district court had abused its discretion by excluding this evidence and violated his due process right to present a complete defense, especially in light of the fact that the prosecution had opened the door to the admission of sexual-history evidence. Wenthe III, N.W.2d at 234-35. The Minnesota Supreme Court agreed that the State “should not have introduced evidence indicating that A.F. was sexually inexperienced and abstained from vaginal intercourse to protect her virginity, and the district court abused its discretion by allowing it to do so.” Wenthe IV, 865 N.W.2d at 306 (internal quotations and alterations omitted). But, the supreme court disagreed that the district court abused its discretion because the excluded evidence was not significantly probative of any material fact and it was unfairly prejudicial. Id. at 307. In addition, the court explained:

Fr. Wenthe testified that he and A.F. had discussed the type of sexual behavior that might interest one another and past sexual practices that they had respectively engaged in, and Wenthe's counsel vigorously cross-examined A.F. regarding Wenthe and A.F.'s conversations about sexual matters.
Most importantly, Wenthe was allowed to-and did-testify at length about his perception of his relationship with A.F. He believed that their relationship “changed very quickly” into one based on sexual desire rather than spiritual guidance. The jury evidently rejected Wenthe's version of the facts, and Wenthe provides no reason to conclude that the verdict would have been different if the jury knew more about A.F.'s past sexual experiences. Based on this record, the verdict was surely unattributable to the error, if any.

Id. at 308 (internal quotations and alterations omitted). Fr. Wenthe challenges the Minnesota Supreme Court's handling of this issue in Grounds 1 and 2 of his habeas petition.

         Unanimity Instruction

         On the first day of Fr. Wenthe's trial, the State amended its complaint to add a second count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct under 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.”[2] Wenthe II, 839 N.W.2d at 86. In charging this second count, the State drafted the complaint vaguely, “alleg[ing] multiple violations of the single-meeting offense, occurring over the course of 2 months, in a single count.” Wenthe IV, 865 N.W.2d at 299. During the trial, “testimony described at least three possible meetings [between November 1, 2003 and December 31, 2003] that might satisfy the single-meeting element of the offense[.]” Wenthe III, 845 N.W.2d at 228. These meetings occurred on Nov. 13, Nov. 14, and an unknown date a few weeks later. Id. The trial court instructed the jury that their verdict had to be unanimous, but did not tell them “that each juror must agree on the event satisfying the single-meeting element of clergy sexual conduct.” Id. Fr. Wenthe did not object to this jury instruction at trial, but the Minnesota Court of Appeals agreed with him when he argued that the trial court had committed plain error in failing to instruct the jurors that each of them must agree on the particular meeting at which the requisite sexual contact occurred. Id. at 229-31. The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed. The supreme court concluded that even if the district court erred in its unanimity instruction, such an error was not plain because it did not affect Fr. Wenthe's substantial rights. Wenthe IV, 865 N.W.2d at 299-301. Fr. Wenthe raises this issue in Ground 5 of his habeas petition.

         Mens Rea

         Fr. Wenthe asked the trial court to instruct the jury that a clergy member charged with violation of the clergy sexual conduct statute “must have subjective knowledge of the purpose of the meeting at which sexual penetration occurred.” Wenthe IV, at 301. The district court rejected Wenthe's proposed instruction and told the jury that a clergy member only had to have the intent to sexually penetrate. Id. The Minnesota Court of Appeals disagreed and “concluded that the district court's instruction misstated the law because the clergy sexual conduct statute requires proof of a particularized knowledge that the complainant sought spiritual counsel.” Id. (citing Wenthe III, 845 N.W.2d at 232-33) (internal quotations omitted). Again the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed. Interpreting the clergy sexual conduct statute, the court concluded that because “the clergy sexual conduct statute does not require the clergy member to know that the complainant seeks or is receiving spiritual counsel[, ] [t]he district court . . . did not err by refusing to give Wenthe's proposed jury instruction.” Id. at 305. Fr. Wenthe addresses this issue in Ground 3 of his habeas petition.

         I. Habeas Standard: Highly Deferential Review

         The Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (“AEDPA”), 28 U.S.C. § 2254, governs the Court's review of Fr. Wenthe's habeas petition. Pursuant to AEDPA, district courts “shall entertain an application for a writ of habeas corpus in behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court only on the ground that he is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.” 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a). Further, AEDPA provides that:

[a]n application for a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of a person in custody pursuant to the judgment of a State court shall not be granted with respect to any claim that was adjudicated on the merits in State court proceedings unless the adjudication of the claim -
(1) resulted in a decision that was contrary to, or involved an unreasonable application of, clearly established Federal law, as determined by the Supreme Court of the United States[.]

28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).

         Interpreting the “contrary to” clause of 2254(d)(1), the United States Supreme Court has stated that:

a state-court decision can be “contrary to” this Court's clearly established precedent in two ways. First, a state-court decision is contrary to this Court's precedent if the state court arrives at a conclusion opposite to that reached by this Court on a question of law. Second, a state-court decision is also contrary to this Court's precedent if the state court confronts facts that are materially indistinguishable from a relevant Supreme Court precedent and arrives at a result opposite to ours.

Williams v. Taylor, 529 U.S. 362, 405 (2000); Yang v. Roy, 743 F.3d 622, 625-26 (8th Cir. 2014) (same, citing Williams).

         For a state court's decision to involve an “unreasonable application” of clearly established federal law, “the state court identifies the correct governing legal principle from [the Supreme] Court's decisions but unreasonably applies that principle to the facts of the prisoner's case.” Williams, 529 U.S. at 413. Further:

A federal habeas court making the “unreasonable application” inquiry should ask whether the state court's application of clearly established federal law was objectively unreasonable. . . . [A] federal habeas court may not issue the writ simply because that court concludes in its independent judgment that the relevant state-court decision applied clearly established federal law erroneously or incorrectly. Rather, that application must also be unreasonable.

Id. at 409, 411.

         Not a Tie-breaker

         Against this backdrop of great deference to the decisions of the Minnesota courts, the Court must address Fr. Wenthe's invitation to step into the fray as a judge considering these issues independently. Referencing the disagreement evident in the several opinions from the Minnesota Court of Appeals and the Minnesota Supreme Court, Fr. Wenthe acknowledges that ...

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