Woman: Priest's counsel led to sexual encounters

Rev. Christopher Wenthe, whose trial opened this week, admits a relationship, but not one that broke state law.

The Star Tribune, Minnesota/November 9, 2011

By Anthony Lonetree

The Rev. Christopher Wenthe has acknowledged violating his priestly vows when he engaged in a sexual relationship with a young woman at a St. Paul Catholic church from 2003 to 2005.

Now, a Ramsey County District Court jury will decide whether he broke the law, too.

On Wednesday, the woman told jurors that she had been sexually abused as a child, leading to a long struggle with bulimia, but when she converted to Catholicism as a 21-year-old in 2003, she felt renewal and hope.

Still, the struggles with the eating disorder continued, and she eventually shared details of her abuse with Wenthe, her confessor and a priest of Nativity of Our Lord church in St. Paul. He assured her, she said Wednesday, she was not "dirty," and that meant a lot coming from a man she respected for his pastoral presence.

Wenthe, 47, and newly ordained after a professional life as an engineer, was overwhelmed by the demands of the job, said his attorney, Paul Engh. Now he is accused of violating a state law prohibiting clergy members from having sex with someone seeking spiritual aid or comfort.

From the stand, the woman, her eyes steering clear of Wenthe, described a year-long cycle of behavior. Every two weeks, the two would talk, something she found "tremendously significant" because she couldn't confide in anyone else, she said. Then, they would have sex, often anal sex -- never vaginal sex.

Asked by prosecutor Karen Kugler about that choice -- allegedly initiated by Wenthe -- the woman replied: "You wouldn't get pregnant. I knew that was a fear of his, of course." For her, it was important, she said, because she began the relationship as a virgin.

To her, Wenthe always was "my priest." Even in the midst of what became a horrible cycle, she said, she sought spiritual comfort from him.

Wenthe, for his part, has acknowledged violating his priestly vows by engaging in a sexual relationship with the woman. But he and his attorney say he committed no crime.

During his opening statement, Engh described a month-long build-up to the first sexual encounter. They were two people falling in love, he said.

"There was no reading of the Bible," Engh said of that first incident. "This was lust."

Wenthe, who is expected to testify, has been removed from active ministry pending the criminal charges, the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said Monday. When charged in February with third-degree criminal sexual conduct, he was pastor of St. Peter's and St. Joseph's parishes in Delano.

Detailed complaint

According to the charges, the sexual relationship began in November 2003. A spiritual adviser had recommended that the woman find a regular confessor in the Catholic Church, and she chose Wenthe, whom she had met while attending a Catholic initiation class.

As their relationship intensified, the eating disorder worsened, she testified Wednesday, and at the end of 2004 she went to Arizona. There, a friend became aware of the relationship. In August 2005, that woman alerted the archdiocese, which summoned Wenthe to explain, the charges say.

The alleged victim also wrote a letter of her own to the archdiocese in 2006, and later met with now former Archbishop Harry Flynn. The woman was told, "consistent with archdiocesan policy," that she could report the matter to police, the archdiocese said Monday. She did not do so then.

In 2008, with her health and strength restored, the woman sought employment with the archdiocese, prosecutor David Hunt said Wednesday. He added she was concerned she might run into Wenthe, but she viewed the position as a way to overcome her struggles.

Later, however, the alleged victim learned that Wenthe had been reassigned to another parish, and she went to police in hopes of preventing him from victimizing anyone else, Hunt said.

Engh, however, said the woman and Wenthe had a cordial meeting when she showed up at a Stillwater church where he'd been assigned after undergoing treatment.

On the stand, the woman said that she had been promised by Flynn that Wenthe "was getting help" and would never be in a position where the same events could occur again -- a claim that attorneys on both sides of the case say Flynn has denied. She went to police, she said Wednesday, after Flynn's successor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, wrote to her asking her to "trust the shepherds of the church" in their belief that Wenthe was rehabilitated.

"I did not want this to happen," the woman said as she cried Wednesday. "This is my worst nightmare ... I just wanted to make sure this wouldn't happen to anyone else."

Andrew Eisenzimmer, chancellor for civil affairs with the archdiocese, said Tuesday that the woman no longer works for the archdiocese.

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