Priest Convicted of Sexual Abuse to Get New Trial
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman Has Not Decided Whether to Appeal, but He Said That He Will Retry John Bussmann, Who Was Convicted of Criminal Sexual Conduct

By Rochelle Olson
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
November 1, 2007

A former priest convicted of sexually abusing two women in his parish will get a new trial because of the admission of extensive evidence at his first trial regarding the Roman Catholic Church's doctrine on the power of priests over parishioners, the state Supreme Court ruled in a splintered decision Thursday.

The court rejected John Bussmann's appeal on the grounds that the state's criminal sexual conduct law violated the due process clause of the U.S. Constitution, but was evenly split on whether the law violates the Establishment Clause, which bars Congress from making laws respecting the establishment of religion. Because the court was evenly split on the issue, it affirmed the ruling of the state Court of Appeals that the law is constitutional.

Justices Sam Hanson, Alan Page, Helen Meyer, Paul H. Anderson and G. Barry Anderson said Bussmann deserves a new trial. Chief Justice Russell Anderson disagreed. Justice Lorie Gildea did not take part in the ruling.

The justices split on the constitutionality issue regarding the Establishment Clause.

Bussmann, formerly of St. Paul, was convicted in July 2005 of two counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct while he was a priest at St. Martin's Catholic Church in Rogers and St. Walburga Church in nearby Hassan Township.

In May 2005, Bussmann also was convicted of indecent exposure, fifth-degree criminal conduct, theft over $500 and theft by swindle over $500 in a separate trial.

At his sentencing in Hennepin County District Court, victims gave tearful testimony about the damage his actions had caused. He was sentenced to five years and eight months in prison and ordered to register as a sex offender upon his release.

John Westrick, Bussmann's St. Paul attorney, said he is happy the court reversed the conviction and would be working to set up a hearing to get his client released from prison. "He was on bail beforehand without incident," Westrick said.

In ordering a new trial, the majority said the district court allowed "extensive evidence regarding the Catholic Church's doctrine on the religious power of priests over parishioners; the church's official policy on counseling and pastoral care; the church's concerns about priest sexual misconduct; and the church's official investigation and findings regarding Bussmann's behavior."

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman said his office has 10 days to decide whether to ask the Supreme Court to reconsider. He said he is concerned the ruling for a new trial was based on evidentiary matters when those were not the subjects briefed to and argued before the court. He pointed to the dissenting opinion in which the chief justice noted that the court "expressly declined review" of all issues but the constitutional claims.

Freeman said of Bussmann, "At an absolute minimum we will retry him and we will convict him. This is a bad actor."

Hanson, writing also for Page and Meyer, found the law unconstitutional because it isn't neutral and secular, "but instead incorporates religions doctrine, as reflected in the legislative determinations that the clergy member is always in a position of power over an advisee," and that the advisee "always lacks capacity to effectively consent to ... sexual penetration."

The three Andersons, however, said the law is constitutional. They said the law is valid because courts "can determine whether a complainant sought or received religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort by reference to secular principles, not religious precepts."

The Andersons do not believe the law reflects determinations that a clergy member is always in a position of power over a parishioner.

The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis removed Bussmann from the priesthood in March 2003.

Contact: Rochelle Olson - 612-673-1747


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