Priest sex-abuse victim wants $42K and court says perpetrator, not archdiocese, should pay

Pioneer Press, Minnesota/February 3, 2012

The victim in the criminal sex case of former Nativity of Our Lord priest Christopher Wenthe has filed a request with the court for $42,000 in restitution.

The woman, who was 21 when the abuse occurred, did not initially ask for the money from the former St. Paul priest.

But the Ramsey County judge in the case, Margaret Marrinan, suggested at sentencing that it would be appropriate for her to do so.

The judge said she had heard that the victim's mother had spent a great deal of money for her treatment for an eating disorder - which was exacerbated by Wenthe's abuse, the victim said during the trial.

"I never asked for (financial) help," the victim told Marrinan at Wenthe's sentencing.

"That is something that is important to this court," the judge said.

Wenthe's attorney, Paul Engh, said Friday that he had not yet had a chance to discuss the restitution issue with Wenthe. He is appealing the conviction, however, Engh said.

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 Pioneer Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse.

The victim testified at trial that when she was a new parishioner at Nativity, a church in St. Paul's Macalester-Groveland neighborhood, she and Wenthe, then 38, developed a close bond.

They began seeing each other regularly. Hours before the first sexual encounter, the one for which Wenthe was convicted, the victim had disclosed to a counselor details of childhood sexual abuse.

Wenthe also knew of her struggles with bulimia, she said.

That night, she was distraught and seeking guidance from the priest. Instead, she gave him oral sex at his urging.

She said at the sentencing that he "leveraged my vulnerability for his own sexual gratification."

Wenthe was sentenced Dec. 14 to a year in jail.

In her written restitution request, submitted this week, the victim included bills from therapy providers.

The largest was for $82,424 from a 45-day stay at an inpatient eating-disorders clinic. The victim's payments totaled $40,000.

While priests, or more commonly, their dioceses, have paid out millions through civil suits to survivors of sexual abuse, it's rare for clergy to be prosecuted criminally and be subject to restitution.

There are several reasons for that, said Mike Finnegan, a lawyer with the St. Paul firm of Jeff Anderson & Associates, which specializes in clergy sexual abuse cases: The statute of limitations is often not long enough for survivors to come forward, and members of the church hierarchy have failed to report abuse to police.

"And in some cases, deference is given to clergy" by police and prosecutors, Finnegan said.

In response to a question about whether the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis might pay the restitution, representative Dennis McGrath said the court directed Wenthe himself to pay it.

"It's his responsibility," McGrath said.

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