Minnesota Supreme Court / Ex-Priest in Sex Case Wins Retrial
Testimony about Religion Was Irrelevant and Prejudicial, Justices Say
By Emily Gurnon
November 2, 2007
A former Hennepin County priest convicted on sex charges will get a new trial because the jury heard too much about religion, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
John Joseph Bussmann, 53, was a priest at St. Martin's Catholic Church in Rogers and St. Walburga Catholic Church in Hassan Township. He had sexual relationships with two women in his parishes while he was counseling them, a Hennepin County jury found in 2005.
While he was advising one woman on religious and marital issues, Bussmann had sex with her on about nine occasions from September 2002 to March 2003. He allegedly told her God had put them together.
In November 2002, Bussmann began having sex with another woman who had come to him for grief counseling after her mother died.
It is against state law for a clergyperson to have sex with a parishioner who is meeting "to seek or receive religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private," even if the parishioner consents.
Bussmann, who was removed as a priest in 2003, was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison.
He appealed, and the Supreme Court decided that prosecutors had introduced too much evidence of religious doctrine at trial. The First Amendment forbids government interference in religious practice.
For example, witnesses testified to what the church said about the power of priests over parishioners, the concern within the church about increasing numbers of complaints of sexual contact within pastoral care and Bussmann's religious training.
That testimony was irrelevant and highly prejudicial, Justice Sam Hanson wrote for the five-judge majority on the doctrinal issue.
"This testimony bolstered the state's claims by informing the jury that the Church condemned Bussmann's behavior and believed that it was important that he be held accountable," Hanson wrote. "It provided religious standards by which the jury was to judge Bussmann's conduct."
Chief Justice Russell Anderson dissented, writing that, when it agreed to review the case, the Supreme Court said it would not look at that issue.
"Consequently, those issues were neither briefed nor argued before us," he wrote.
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman agreed with the chief justice.
"They didn't hear us on that issue," he said. "We'd like to brief it."
Freeman also said Bussmann's attorney did not object to the religious evidence during the trial.
"Normally, when you don't like something the other side is doing, you object to it," Freeman said. Because that didn't happen, "it should never have been an appellate issue."
Freeman said the county will petition the high court to reconsider its decision, a move rarely granted.
John Westrick, Bussmann's attorney, could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The high court was equally divided on whether the law regarding criminal clergy sex is unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
Because of the split, the Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the court of appeals, which ruled the statute constitutional.
SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, issued a statement on the Supreme Court's ruling.
"Our hearts ache for those wounded but caring women who showed courage by coming forward and who protected the vulnerable by exposing this dangerous priest," the group said.
"It's always sad and troubling when predators exploit legal technicalities to escape justice for their crimes."
Emily Gurnon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5522.
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