The pastor at Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul was quick to reach out to parishioners after a priest who had served at the parish was arrested Feb. 17 on charges of sexual contact with an adult woman.
Father Christopher Wenthe, who most recently was serving as pastor of the Delano Catholic Community, was charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct for incidents that allegedly took place while he was serving at Nativity between November 2003 and February 2005.
In a letter on the parish website dated Feb. 18, Father Patrick Hipwell, Nativity pastor, extended his concern for the parish community and “especially those of you who were associated with Father Wenthe” while he served at Nativity.
“At this time, we have no knowledge of the circumstances and details surrounding these allegations other than what has been reported through the media,” Father Hipwell wrote. He went on to ask parishioners to pray for all the individuals impacted by the events, “in particular, the woman who filed the complaint, Father Wenthe, and your fellow parishioners.”
A Feb. 17 statement from the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis said:
“The matter was reported to archdiocesan authorities in September 2005. The woman subsequently met with archdiocesan representatives and was offered counseling and therapy. She was informed, as consistent with archdiocesan policy, that she could report the contact to the police but chose not to do so. Following an internal review, the archdiocese sent Father Wenthe for a psychological assessment and treatment.”
The statement went on to say that after the priest completed “a psychological assessment and treatment,” the independent Clergy Review Board recommended he be allowed to return to active ministry, with certain conditions and restrictions.
When Father Wenthe was appointed parochial vicar of St. Michael/St. Mary parish in Delano in October 2006, the pastor and trustees were given a full report of the incident, the statement said. He was later appointed pastor, after another review by the Clergy Review Board, it said, adding that no complaints or incidents have been made over the past five years of Father Wenthe’s ministry.
The alleged victim, now 29, claims the priest was serving as her counselor at the time of the sexual contact.
Father Wenthe’s attorney said that it was a consensual relationship with a “close friend,” which is not illegal, although is not in agreement with his priestly vows.
A 1993 state law makes it a felony for any clergy member to have sex with another adult who is seeking or receiving religious or spiritual advice, aid or comfort in private.
On Feb. 25, The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis posted a statement by Archbishop John Nienstedt regarding the allegation against the priest.
The archbishop wrote: “I was deeply saddened to learn of the arrest [Feb. 17] of Father Christopher Wenthe, a priest of the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, on allegations of criminal sexual conduct between Father Wenthe and an adult woman more than five years ago. Independent of the charge of criminal conduct, which will now be answered by a court of law, promises were broken and lives were deeply wounded by the actions of a priest of this Archdiocese.
“This moment of profound pain and humiliation for the local church, not to mention those directly involved, provides us all, clergy and laity alike, with the opportunity to commit ourselves anew to that holiness of life that is the vocation of every Christian. To this end, let it be remembered that we are called to be a people of mercy and forgiveness even as we promote justice and steadfastly serve the protection of all God’s holy people.”