St. Paul: Priest gets year in jail for sex abuse

Pioneer Press, Minnesota/December 15, 2011

A priest who formerly served at Nativity of Our Lord Church in St. Paul was sentenced Wednesday to a year in jail for criminal sexual conduct involving a female parishioner 17 years his junior.

Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan ordered that Christopher Wenthe, 47, be remanded into custody immediately.

"I watched you," Marrinan told Wenthe before pronouncing the sentence. She said his testimony in the trial, the evidence and even his "physical reactions" in the courtroom "convinced me that, if nothing else, you are an extremely narcissistic individual."

"You violated the trust that (the victim) placed in you and that your church placed in you," the judge said.

Wenthe said he regretted the hurt that his actions caused. His attorney, Paul Engh, said an admission of guilt, however, would not be in Wenthe's best interests, because he is appealing the conviction.

Wenthe got sexually involved with a then-21-year-old woman who sought his advice and guidance in her struggles with an eating disorder and past sexual abuse. She said that he took advantage of her vulnerability and that she trusted him because he was a priest.

A jury convicted Wenthe of third-degree criminal sexual conduct Nov. 15 for having sex with the woman in late 2003. The sexual activity was a crime because it occurred "during the course of a meeting in which the (victim) sought or received religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort from the (clergy member) in private."

The jury acquitted him on a separate charge that alleged he had a sexual relationship with her from November 2003 to February 2005 while she was receiving religious or spiritual help on an ongoing basis.

The judge said she received "numerous" letters in support of Wenthe. His allies, including several members of his family, were present in the courtroom.

One of Wenthe's supporters, while passing her in the courtroom hallway Wednesday, said, "Shame on you," according to prosecutor Karen Kugler.

A parish member wrote to the judge in support of the woman, saying she wanted the victim "and all of the faithful to be safe from Father Wenthe and his predatory behavior."

Marrinan agreed to a defense request for a lesser sentence than the four years called for in state guidelines for the offense. She reasoned that if Wenthe were in prison, he would not be able to pay the restitution of up to $90,000 and the $30,000 fine that she ordered.

The restitution money is intended to reimburse the victim's family for inpatient treatment of her eating disorder, which reached a crisis during her relationship with Wenthe, she testified.

The victim did not request the money; rather the judge became aware of the family's debt and ordered it be repaid.

If Wenthe does not follow the rules of his 15-year probation, which include completing sex offender treatment, registering as a sex offender and not counseling women, as well as paying the restitution, he could be forced to serve a stayed prison term of four years and nine months.

The victim told the court Wednesday that she brought the matter to civil authorities after "having been disregarded" by the church hierarchy.

She believed the truth would finally come out at the trial.

"I was wrong," she said. The fact that the defense presented the situation as one of two consenting adults with an equal level of power caused her even more pain, she said.

Marrinan ordered that Wenthe's supporters leave the courthouse immediately after the end of the hearing to remove the chance they might have contact with the victim.

After the victim contacted the archdiocese about what happened with Wenthe, it sent him for psychological treatment, and he was returned to active ministry in August 2006.

He was appointed parochial vicar of the St. Michael/St. Mary parish in Stillwater in October 2006. He was later appointed pastor of the Delano Catholic Community but was removed from active ministry after the woman took the case to police in 2010.

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