United States District Court, D. Minnesota
Fr. Christopher Thomas Wenthe, Petitioner,
Tom Roy, Minnesota Commissioner of Corrections, Respondent.
C. Engh, counsel for petitioner
R. Marker, Ramsey County Attorney's Office, counsel for
REPORT AND RECOMMENDATION
KATHERINE MENENDEZ, UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE
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.
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.
Fr. Wenthe's conviction, the Minnesota appellate courts
wrestled with his direct appeal, issuing a total of four
separate decisions comprising seven distinct
opinions. 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.
Minnesota Supreme Court described how Fr. Wenthe and the
alleged victim, identified by her initials A.F., came to know
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.
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.
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.
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.
and Appellate Issues
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.
Sexual H istory and Conversations
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).
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
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.” 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.
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.
Habeas Standard: Highly Deferential Review
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
28 U.S.C. § 2254(d)(1).
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).
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
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
Id. at 409, 411.
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