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By Thy Authority

Oh, look. Another preacher person is in trouble for using the authority of his position to get him some.

The woman told police that her spiritual adviser recommended she find a regular confessor in the Catholic Church so she chose Wenthe, whom she had met while attending a Catholic initiation class. She said Wenthe heard her confession at least four times, while he told police he heard her confession only one time and it was before their sexual relationship began.

According to the criminal complaint, the woman said she had been sexually abused as a child and suffered from an eating disorder. The first sexual encounter took place at Wenthe’s rectory apartment after the woman had met with her counselor.

“I remember pleading with him that we should stop,” the woman wrote in a 2006 letter to an archdiocese official. “He made me feel like I had done this to him and that I was obligated to finish the job.”

The woman told police the sexual encounters happened about every two weeks, sometimes after mass in Wenthe’s apartment or in the sacristy where priests change into their ceremonial garments. She eventually left the state to enter treatment for her eating disorder and the sexual encounters ended in February 2005.

This time, however, the priest is saying he shouldn’t be in trouble for what he did.

Paul Engh, Wenthe’s attorney, filed a motion arguing that the state law prohibiting a clergy member from having sex with a person who is seeking or receiving “religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private” is unconstitutional. In court records, the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office said the law is constitutional and has been upheld by the Minnesota Supreme Court.

District Judge Margaret Marrinan will hear arguments from both sides Monday.

“Any minister who has sex with anybody may be in trouble under this statute,” Engh said last week. “It’s an overly broad attempt to regulate sexual behavior.”

Right. Because priests and ministers can’t possibly, say, sign up for OKCupid and take their chances like anyone else. Their situation is so very, very special that they can only have sex with the vulnerable people who come to them for help and believe they have an inside line on what God wants. They are such special snowflakes that they can’t abide by the same laws every other kind of counselor or other authority is bound by. Not them.

And the answer to the problem apparently isn’t to give up any of that authority either. The church is engaging in similar nail biting.

Andrew Eisenzimmer, chancellor for civil affairs with the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, said the archdiocese has not taken a position on the constitutionality of the law. He said these types of cases are complex because of the restrictions on testimony about a particular religion’s practices or beliefs.

“You’re asking the jury to decide when a Catholic priest is actually counseling a follower,” Eisenzimmer said.

Not really. Though the law specifies that sex is prohibited when someone seeks “religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private,” what the state is asking the jury to do is to determine when there is a degree of authority in a relationship that prevents a reasonable certainty of free consent.

It’s a high standard, yes. However, it’s the same standard that anyone else who offers care in situations that create an imbalance of power agrees to abide by. Do they always stick to this agreement? No, but they don’t then challenge the legality of the agreement based on the idea that maybe they didn’t have that much power. Power and authority are broadly construed for other “helping” professions. None of them seems to have this same problem with thinking this will keep them from ever having sex. They simply keep their sex and professional lives separate. Who would think it would be harder for those who claim to be experts in the problem of temptation?

It’s also amusing to see Wenthe’s attorney’s concern for “an overly broad attempt to regulate sexual behavior.” His client has nominally submitted to a much-tighter regulation of his own behavior and participates in the church’s attempt to regulate everyone else’s.

That Wenthe is fighting the state and not the church suggests that his problem isn’t with regulating sexual behavior in general, but only with anyone who tries to regulate his. After all, the church only made him undergo treatment when they were informed of the problem in 2006. They left him all the authority that allowed him to do this in the first place.