Monday, June 20, 2011

Fr. Wenthe's Lawsuit: "Callous and Selfish"

Editor's Note: Following is an excerpt from William D. Lindsey's post, "David Clohessy Issues SNAP Press Statement on Wenthe Case: Laws Apply to the Church, Too." The "Wenthe case" that both Clohessy's press statement and Lindsey's post highlight refers to the lawsuit of Fr. Thomas Wenthe of St. Paul, Minnesota, challenging the constitutionality of the Minnesota law governing inappropriate behavior of pastors with those under pastoral care. Wenthe is accused of violating state law by allegedly having a sexual relationship with an adult female parishioner.


. . . [In his media release, SNAP's] David Clohessy . . . provides very helpful context for interpreting what Wenthe and his attorney are trying to do. I want to excerpt some observations from David's press statement [that] address questions . . . about what might make abuse of a pastoral counseling relationship different from abuse of other adult relationships that don't involve a pastoral context.

First, I want to note that David calls on the bishops of Minnesota to denounce the legal tactic of Wenthe and his attorney, which attacks the constitutionality of Minnesota laws governing pastoral behavior. David notes that this is a "callous and selfish move" that would leave those receiving pastoral ministry vulnerable to exploitation by clerical predators, if it succeeded. He sees this move as "typical" of what predators do: Wenthe is "trying to exploit every possible legal maneuver and technicality to avoid responsibility for his sexual exploitation of a vulnerable parishioner."

In particular, David maintains that the "real blame" for this tactic lies with Archbishop Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul, who is permitting a priest in his charge to attack a law designed to protect people from pastoral predators who abuse their positions of trust and authority. And that statement leads to the heart of what David Clohessy wants to emphasize in this press statement.

As he notes, the argument of Wenthe's attorney that the current law criminalizes "any minister who has sex with anybody" is patently false. It's absurd. What the law deals with is the violation of pastoral boundaries. It seeks to punish the abuse of pastoral authority and pastoral relationships, which always involve an unequal distribution of power between the pastor and the one to whom (s)he is ministering, and which always involve vulnerability on the part of the one receiving ministry.

Here's the heart of David Clohessy's statement:

When will Catholic officials accept the fact secular laws that safeguard the vulnerable apply to them? When will they accept that religious belief, not criminal behavior, is protected in this country?

A highly educated, allegedly celibate man who holds the revered title Catholic priest cannot ever have truly consensual sex with a congregant. Catholics have been raised since birth to believe priests are God's representatives on earth, can forgive our sins, can turn wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Priests always hold an exalted position, and when they have any sexual involvement with parishioners, it is always wrong and hurtful.

There is an inherent power imbalance between clergy and church members. It is much like a doctor-patient or therapist-client relationship, where any sexual contact is expressly forbidden. It's the duty of Minnesota’s Catholic bishops to help parishioners understand this and to speak out against this desperate legal move by one of their priests.

. . . Bob Schwiderski, Minnesota's SNAP director, has noted that the argument Wenthe and his attorney are using to attack the current Minnesota law is one diocesan officials in Minnesota have used in other similar cases in the past. If that's the case, then it appears that David Clohessy is absolutely correct when he implicates Archbishop Nienstedt. . . .

To read William Lindsey's commentary in its entirety, click here.

Related Off-site Links:
St. Paul Priest Challenges Sex Charges – Lora Pabst (
Star Tribune, June 19, 2011).
Minnesota Priest Challenges Law: New Apologetic Excuses Violations of Pastoral Relationships – William D. Lindsey (
Bilgrimage, June 20, 2011).

See also the previous PCV posts:
Archdiocese Blocks Bills to Help Sex Abuse Victims
Essential Reading: Tom Doyle's Response to John Allen, Jr.
SNAP Responds to Archbishop Nienstedt
The Scandal of Sexual Abuse
He Spoke Truth to Power, But Vatican Wouldn't Listen
Fr. Thomas Doyle: "There is Something Radically Wrong With the Institutional Catholic Church"
Statute of Limitations for Sex Abuse Victims: “You Can’t Get Healing in a Court of Law”


  1. Where is it written, other than by people who work for SNAP that priests may not be permitted to defend himself in court?

  2. Ray, this law is not aimed at the Roman Catholic priesthood specifically. It is aimed at pastors in general and it's a good law. Wenthe is attempting to claim that for some reason Roman Catholic priests should not be bound by such a law. I don't see where there is any compelling case to exempt Roman Catholic priests. This is standard stuff in other helping profession and that includes professional pastoral counseling.

    Or are you maintaining priests are not professional and shouldn't be bound by professional standards?

  3. Hi!...

    I don't know so much about pedophilia scandals in the US... But reading here and there lots of stories, my unique question is: Why? And why so many cases?... Let us discuss it apart the noise of this or another specific case!... Why? Why so many?

    Of course Catholics have to put those questions to themselves in order to find a proper answer to that unfortunate crisis. Why? Why so many? We need to change attitudes as a Church! Unfortunatly few think in it!... Have a good evening!...