Testimony allowed against former pastor in sex abuse case

Winona Post [Winona MN]

April 16, 2021

By Chris Rogers

Former Winona pastor Rick Iglesias’ legal defense against sexual abuse charges suffered a setback earlier this month when a judge ruled testimony from Iglesias’ former boss and senior pastor may be used in the case.

Iglesias, 66, was charged in 2019 with repeatedly sexually abusing a minor from 2010 to 2012 when Iglesias was a pastor at Pleasant Valley Church in Winona.

In one of the case’s most significant events to date, defense attorney Kurt Knuesel petitioned the court to suppress testimony from Dr. Kurt Bjorklund. Bjorklund was a minister at a church in Pennsylvania where Iglesias worked in 2019. Bjorklund was Iglesias’ supervisor, the two were old friends from seminary, and Knuesel wrote, Bjorklund was Iglesias’ “only spiritual superior in the church.” In summer 2019, Iglesias asked to meet Bjorklund at his house, reportedly disclosed that he had committed a sexual crime against a minor, and resigned from his job as a minister, according to legal filings from both Knuesel and prosecutors. According to prosecutors, Bjorklund testified, “Basically [Iglesias] acknowledged that he had been accused of being sexually involved with somebody. And, he told me who it was. And, more or less acknowledged that that was indeed true.” The two prayed together at the end of the meeting. Bjorklund later talked with Iglesias about reporting the information to law enforcement, and ultimately Bjorklund called the Winona Police Department in front of Iglesias, without Iglesias objecting, according to court records. 

According to the Winona Police Department, the reported victim told investigators of alleged repeated sexual assaults by Iglesias.

Often called the priest-penitent privilege, Minnesota law prohibits a citizen’s confidential conversations with clergy seeking spiritual “advice, aid, or comfort” to be used as evidence in criminal cases. Knuesel argued that Iglesias’ conversation with Bjorklund was spiritual in nature and should be disallowed. Assistant Winona County Attorney Christina Galewski contended the meeting was primarily a business conversation between an employee and his supervisor and did not qualify for the priest-penitent privilege.

Knuesel pointed to Bjorklund’s own testimony to support his argument, describing the end of their initial meeting, “The two of them then engaged in that most spiritual act of all, prayer. That prayer, as testified to by Dr. Bjorklund, was made to provide spiritual encouragement, to seek guidance from God as to what defendant’s next steps should be and to provide spiritual support.” Knuesel also argued that Bjorklund was resentful of Iglesias’ handling of the criminal case and biased against him as a result, which prosecutors disputed.

Galewski quoted from Bjorklund’s testimony: “[Iglesias] was not seeking me for what should I do next. He came to resign and to tell me why he resigned.” Galewski noted that there is no evidence Iglesias ever asked Bjorklund to keep this information confidential, and she concluded, “Here, the defendant was not seeking out Dr. Bjorklund because he was a pastor who could provide spiritual counsel. The defendant was seeking out Dr. Bjorklund for employment reasons. He was the defendant’s direct report. The defendant was seeking out Dr. Bjorklund in his professional position or capacity as his boss.”

After weighing the arguments, Winona County District Court Judge Mary Leahy ruled on April 7 in favor of the prosecution. Not all communications with clergy are privileged, she noted, citing case law. The key legal questions, Leahy wrote, are: “(1) was the communication made to a minister serving in that very role as a minister, (2) whether the conversation was ever intended to be shared beyond the communicant and the minister and finally (3) whether the conversation was held for the purpose of getting spiritual help or support.”

Leahy ruled, “In this case the communication between the defendant and Bjorklund was not to seek out religious aid, comfort or advice. No request for such advice or assistance was ever made by the defendant. He did not go to Bjorklund’s private home to ‘unburden himself’ but instead to give notice to his boss that he had to resign his position with the church … In addition, there was nothing about the conversation that was intended to be kept a secret. Quite to the contrary, Bjorklund, after notifying his superiors of this situation, met with the defendant later that same day to when they both disclosed to law enforcement what had been told to him. Defendant did not tell Bjorklund he was not permitted to share details of this disclosure to third parties and they even discussed him talking to the police about what he had done. The defendant consented to Bjorklund disclosing to third parties what he had told him and sat right there while that disclosure was made.”