Today the Minnesota Supreme Court held in a four to one decision that clergy members will be held to the same standard of law as other professionals in the state, regardless of religion. In the case State v. Wenthe, a priest had an ongoing sexual relationship with an adult parishioner under the guise of counseling. As a result, the priest was convicted of third-degree criminal sexual conduct for violating Minnesota Statutes section 609.344, subd. 1(l)(i) which prohibits sexual conduct between a clergy member and a parishioner during a single meeting when the purpose of the meeting is for spiritual counseling. Wenthe appealed his conviction and the Court of Appeals held that the statute as applied to him violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution because religion was excessively entangled in his trial.
The Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and made it clear today that we can inquire into a clergy member’s inappropriate conduct without inquiring into their religious beliefs. The Wenthe Court concisely held that clergy, just like other counselors, are capable of committing felonies and using their power to gain sex. The Court also clarified a prior ruling in State v. Bussman and determined that all professional counselors will be held to the same standard of care under the law, regardless of religion.
We applaud the Ramsey County Attorney’s office for their diligence and hard work in pursuing this case, the courageous survivor for standing up against her perpetrator, and the Court for clarifying that we can balance freedom of religion and the protection of vulnerable adults. This ruling will help others who have been hurt and encourage those who have been victimized by a clergy member to come forward.