There is much controversy circulating around a recent court case concerning a Catholic priest and a series of alleged sexual misconduct occurrences with one of his parish members. Several errors within the proceedings along with a new specific requirement for similar cases have led to the reversal of the priest’s original conviction. That particular additional requirement has the potential to overturn similar convictions made prior to this reversal.
Rev. Christopher Wenthe was originally charged and convicted in 2011 for sexual conduct. Wenthe had been his accuser’s spiritual counselor and heard her confessions several times. The two became friends over time and, after visits to Wenthe’s living accommodations, developed a sexual relationship which lasted over a year. Wenthe was originally found guilty but, after a trial in Minnesota’s Court of Appeals, has had his conviction reversed.
According to the new decision, sexual conduct cases involving a spiritual leader must now prove sexual intent of the leader as well as a clear knowledge that the victim was solely seeking spiritual aid. In many similar cases involving repeated or prolonged sexual relations, both of these issues may become debatable.
As far as the errors within the court proceedings are concerned, the judge simply needs to be more communicative and clear when delegating certain requirements and responsibilities to the jury members. Even the smallest miscommunication can completely change the outcome of a decision. Most involved parties agree that a judge is responsible for distinctly providing the most accurate and clear instructions to the jury, so the ruling reversals based on human error are not causing much of an uproar.
There is however a more significant amount of dissent surrounding the requirement for proof of intent and prior knowledge about the victim seeking spiritual comforts. In this particular case, and possibly others, the priest and his parish member developed a friendship through repeated encounters. At what point do the lines of professional confessor and friend become crossed? And then again, where along that line of the relationship did their sexual interactions take place? If these sexual encounters continued for 2+ years, were both parties still behaving based on the purpose of seeking confession and spiritual guidance?