Appeals court overturns priest’s conviction

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A Roman Catholic priest from a St. Paul parish saw his sexual misconduct conviction overturned Monday by the state Court of Appeals in a ruling with broader implications for cases involving allegations of clergy abuse.

The ruling created a higher bar for prosecutors and a new avenue of defense for accused clergy.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he was disappointed with the ruling because he is now required to prove intent by the priest. Defense attorney Paul Engh called the decision a move toward fairness for the accused.

Choi said he hasn’t decided whether he will try to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court or try Christopher Thomas Wenthe again. The prosecutor said the ruling creates an “inherent power imbalance between a clergy member and a vulnerable person seeking spiritual or religious advice, aid or comfort from that member, such as is the case here, where the victim had been sexually abused as a child and was struggling with an eating disorder.”

Wenthe met his accuser in September 2003. She was a 21-year-old convert to Catholicism and asked him to be her regular confessor. He agreed even though he had never played such a role before.

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