Church and Unstately Behavior

3 Jan

When sex crime and catholic church are used in the same sentence, you usually assume child abuse is in the mix.  However, a recent Ramsey County criminal case involved “consenting” adults. However because a jury found Rev. Christopher Wenthe had sexual relations with a woman and that:

The actor is or purports to be a member of the clergy, the complainant is not married to the actor, and… the sexual penetration occurred during a period of time in which the complainant was meeting on an ongoing basis with the actor to seek or receive religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private. Consent by the complainant is not a defense. 609.344 (i)(ii) (pronounced ¡ay ay ay!)

At first blush the law seems legitimate.  Priests should be held to a higher standard by society because individuals put their trust in them.  The law is part of the same statute that makes it illegal for a psychiatrist to have sex with a patient who they are treating.  This analogy seems to hold up until you compare treating to “seeking or receiving religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private.”

While it is very likely appropriate to ask a jury to determine what “treatment” is, it seems that asking a jury to define “clergy” and  “spiritual advice, aid or comfort” might create excessive entanglement between church and state. The Minnesota Supreme Court divided evenly on the generally constitutionality of this law in State v. Bussmann, 741 N.W.2d 79 (Minn., 2007).  Those affirming the law’s constitutionally emphasized an inherent power imbalance between clergy and laity and that the law in some instances could be applied constitutionally.  However, the court overturned Bussmann’s conviction because the trial court used religious evidence in a way that entangled church and state (Bussman was eventually retried and convicted).

So what could the other half of the court be thinking? Well in the letter in which Thomas Jefferson coined “separation of Church and State,” he wrote:

 Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.

While this isn’t the text of the constitution, I believe it conveys the core concern of the establishment clause of the constitution.  If some one must account to the state for his religion or worship, the state becomes the intermediary between that person and her god.  Wenthe at trial described a deeply conflicted but loving sexual relationship.  To understand how the statute applied one needed to understand what a “regular confessor” was and what “clergy” meant.  Which is to say, you could argue that Wenthe had to account for his religion and worship to the state.  Hopefully at this point you are consider how you would define clergy.  Well don’t worry, Wikipedia solves all problems.  Except if you are a deacon, or a member of the Melchizedek priesthood.

Now maybe you are thinking, sure there are difficult situations in which to apply the law, but there are a core number of situations that we all know like Catholic priests. This raises two issues: one, how do “we all know” these and two isn’t there something non-religious about those situations that “we all” can agree on. Aren’t we concerned about people in positions of authority using that authority to take advantage of people they knew or should have known to be vulnerable?  While mulling that over think about whether we want to make bosses who sleep with employees felons and if maybe, just maybe, it would be better to keep the government out of our bedrooms and pews (even if we sometimes let one of them do double duty).

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