Catholic Priest’s Conviction Reversed for Prosecutor’s Violation of the Establishment Clause

In  State of Minnesota v. Wenthe, No. 62-CR-11-1266 (Nov. 26, 2012), the Minnesota Court of Appeals employed a novel application of the Establishment Clause to reverse the conviction of a Catholic priest for sexual misconduct with a woman during the course of a meeting in which she sought spiritual counseling from the priest. A Minnesota statute criminalizes any sexual conduct which occurs in such a setting.

The defendant priest heard the woman’s confession four or five times, and a friendship and social relationship developed thereafter. On one occasion, the woman visited the priest at his private quarters in the church rectory and they engaged in consensual sexual conduct. The priest and the woman continued to engage in sexual conduct for approximately sixteen more months, on the average of once every two weeks. The woman reported the affair to the police some five years after the last incident.

The Minnesota appeals court first ruled that the clergy sexual conduct statute did not violate the Establishment Clause because it established secular standards. It then turned to the question of whether application of the statute to the priest in this case violated the Establishment Clause because the prosecutor relied upon “religious evidence regarding Roman Catholic doctrine, internal church policies, and church views of priesthood.”

Relying on an earlier decision by the Minnesota Supreme Court in State v. Bussmann, 741 N.W. 2d 79 (Minn. 2007), the appeals court determined that the prosecutor violated the Establishment Clause in a number of different ways. First, he presented “extensive evidence on Roman Catholic doctrine regarding the religious authority of priests over parishioners.” This included testimony regarding “the authority of priests as ‘holy’ men who were charged with ‘the care of souls’ and are subject to vows of chastity.”

Second, the prosecutor presented additional evidence regarding “the church’s policies on pastoral care, Roman Catholic doctrine regarding sexual conduct involving priests, and the church’s concerns about priest misconduct.” The priest himself was cross examined regarding whether “he was aware that it was ‘immoral’ to have sex with a parishioner because ‘you took a vow,’ ‘you’re charged with the spiritual care of people,’ ‘parishioners look [] up to you as sort of the moral leader at the Church and the spiritual leader,’ and because ‘you’re there for the spiritual direction of the parishioners’.”

The cumulative impact of this evidence, in the view of the appeals court, “was to establish the Roman Catholic Church’s strong moral condemnation of priests who engage in sexual conduct.” Such religious evidence “‘presents a serious risk of excessive government entanglement'” and “‘bolstered the state’s claims by informing the jury’ that the Roman Catholic Church condemned appellant’s behavior.”

The court next turned to the presentation of what it referred to as “extensive evidence on the church’s response to the allegations of appellant’s misconduct.” This included testimony by the priest responsible for coordinating the church’s response that the priest admitted having an “illicit relationship” with the woman parishioner and that the priest was sent for treatment to “get him back on track as far as his ministry.” A church victim advocate also testified that the church should not put the priest “in a position of authority… in the care of souls.”

Finally, the appeals court reviewed the prosecutor’s presentation of extensive evidence “about appellant’s religious training,” including “whether he had been instructed on the role of the priest as ‘a person in a position of authority’ and as someone to whom parishioners would ‘look up to…on spiritual matters’.”

The prosecutor’s choice to rely upon such evidence “provided the jury with religious standards for judging appellant’s conduct. It invited the jury to determine appellant’s guilt on the basis of his violation of Roman Catholic doctrine, his breaking of the priestly vows of celibacy, and his abuse of the spiritual authority bestowed on Roman Catholic priests; additionally, the evidence invited concern about the response of church authorities to the victim’s complaint.” Since the evidence “pervaded the entire trial,” the effect was to “repeatedly inject… Roman Catholic doctrine and practice as a backdrop for underscoring appellant’s culpability.”

The court therefore concluded that the conviction itself “was based on excessive religious evidence,” “was excessively entangled with religion,” and “was therefore obtained in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.”









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