Prosecution Must Establish Particular Incident of Priest Sexual Misconduct

Minnesota case law summary by Attorney Richard Clem: Criminal sexual conduct by priest.

State of Minnesota v. Christopher Thomas Wenthe. MN criminal sexual conduct by priest.

This was Christopher Wenthe's third trip to the Minnesota appellate courts. Wenthe was a newly ordained Roman Catholic priest in St. Paul when he first met A.F. at a church picnic in 2003. A friendship ensued, which resulted in sexual contact in November 2003. These sexual contacts continued, with some "periods of abstinence" as the defendant called them, until 2005. In 2010, A.F. was dissatisfied with how the diocese handled her disclosure of the sexual contact, and she contacted police. The defendant was charged with third-degree sexual conduct, for contact which occurred while the victim was meeting with the defendant on an ongoing basis for spiritual advice.

In 2012, the Minnesota Court of Appeals reversed the conviction since the statute violated the Establishment Clause because of excessive evidence regarding church doctrine or internal church practices. State v. Wenthe, 822 N.W.2d 822 (Minn. App. 2012). But the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded for the Court of Appeals to consider the defendant's other claims. State v. Wenthe, 839 N.W.2d 83 (Minn. 2013). These claims were decided by the Court of Appeals on April 7, 2014.

The defendant first argued that the verdict had not been unanimous because the jury was not called upon to unanimously decide the particular meeting at which the prohibited conduct occurred. There were allegations that defendant had engaged in sexual conduct on multiple occasions. The Court of Appeals agreed that it was error not to instruct the jury that they must unanimously decide on which occasion the offense had taken place. This was because the defendant alleged that some of the meetings were for purposes other than spiritual counsel, and that contact on one of those occasions would not constitute an offense. For these reasons, the Court of Appeals reversed the conviction and remanded.

The Court of Appeals also held that the trial court had erroneously instructed the jury on the intent element. The appellate court held that the jury must find that the defendant must know the religious or spiritual nature of the meeting, and that the jury had not been instructed on this element of the offense.

The Court of Appeals also held that under the circumstances of this case, the defense should have been able to offer evidence as to the sexual history of the defendant.

No. A12-0263 (Minn. Ct. App. April 7, 2014).

Please see the original opinion for the court's exact language.


Richard P. Clem is an attorney and continuing legal education (CLE) provider in Minnesota. He has been in private practice in the Twin Cities for 25 years. He has a J.D., cum laude, from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul and a B.A. in History from the University of Minnesota. His reported cases include: Asociacion Nacional de Pescadores a Pequena Escala o Artesanales de Colombia v. Dow Quimica de Colombia, 988 F.2d 559, rehearing denied, 5 F.3d 530 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1041 (1994); LaMott v. Apple Valley Health Care Center, 465 N.W.2d 585 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991); Abo el Ela v. State, 468 N.W.2d 580 (Minn. Ct. App. 1991).

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