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"We Catholics have become too complacent about the legal killing of unborn children in America and elsewhere," he warned a packed cathedral. "This complacency contributed to the climate that led Notre Dame's president to think that it would be no big deal to defy the bishops in granting this honorary degree to President Obama."
The Mass marked Wenski's emergence onto the national scene as a man of action. But it also revealed him as more reactionary than most Catholics, including his fellow clergymen. His highly publicized statements did not reflect the beliefs of his flock. Only one in four American Catholics supported his stance on Notre Dame, according to a poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Even the Vatican remained silent.
Wenski is part of a new generation of bishops determined to win back Christians courted by evangelism. "They can see the challenges to the [Catholic] Church that have developed in recent years," says Helen Hitchcock, an expert on the U.S. Conference of Bishops. Wenski is at the head of this new wave, beating the morality drum. "When you have a bishop that speaks out and defends church teachings as he has done, you immediately get a high profile," she says.
A year and a half after Wenski took a stand against Notre Dame, his opinions have only grown stronger. Sitting in his quiet Miami Shores office with a 40-foot metal cross on the lawn, the archbishop calls Obama "the most radical pro-choice president in our history" and argues that using condoms "is like playing Russian roulette. All they do is encourage risky behavior. They aren't safe. Safe sex is fidelity."
Americans today "live as if God didn't matter," Wenski says. And like John Paul II, he believes the Catholic Church hasn't fought hard enough against that godlessness. "Drug abuse or abortion or sexual promiscuity — these are all hopeless activities," he says. "The church is here to present hope."
But for many Miamians, the Catholic Church has more to do with suffering than salvation. Willard Trent, for example, now shudders at the sight of a steeple. The former altar boy claims Father Thomas Dennehy, then a pastor at Saint John the Baptist in Fort Lauderdale, dressed him up like a schoolgirl and repeatedly raped him over several years in the late '60s.
This past October, Trent sued the Archdiocese of Miami for $5 million and access to its records on Dennehy, who died in 1999. According to the lawsuit, Dennehy warned Trent that if he told anyone about the abuse, "he would be damned to burn in Hell or a lake of fire." When Trent more than a year ago contacted the archdiocese about the abuse, his phone calls were ignored, he says. Wenski contends the archdiocese did what it could: offer Trent counseling.
Lawsuits such as Trent's are perhaps the greatest challenge Wenski faces. Trent's lawyer, Jeffrey Herman, has 16 others in the hopper. In the past seven years, he has handled 86 cases of alleged sexual abuse involving the Archdiocese of Miami. The church has settled dozens of them, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. In 2006 alone, the archdiocese settled six abuse cases for a total of $750,000. Two of those complaints were against Neil Doherty, a former priest at Saint Vincent's in Margate who is in jail awaiting trial for child sexual abuse.
Also in 2006, the church apologized to disgraced former U.S. Rep. Mark Foley after Father Anthony Mercieca admitted to molesting Foley when he was a teenager at Sacred Heart in Lake Worth — the same church Wenski attended as a child. Mercieca now lives on the Maltese island of Gozo.
The lawsuits and abuse claims are both a financial drain and a public relations disaster for the church. "Yes, I do make a lot of money out of it," Herman says. "But for the victims coming forward so many years later, the only justice they'll get is in civil court."
In 2002, Miami Archbishop John Favalora issued rules for handling complaints of abuse, but Herman says the archdiocese has become more cynical and secretive since Wenski took over. "The difference that I've seen is that they've been really unsympathetic to the victims," he says. "Archbishop Wenski hasn't handed over a single file on these priests. They talk about being transparent, but still they hold all the files."
"Herman is a big lawyer, and he's certainly representing some legitimate victims," Wenski admits. "But he's also trying to stir the pot to see who he can pick up."
Yet Herman is not the only one questioning Wenski's willingness to take abuse seriously. David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and an abuse victim himself, says the new archbishop needs to do more to address and investigate past abuses. He says at least 32 Miami-area priests have been accused of sexual abuse since the archdiocese was founded in 1952.
The new Miami archbishop broke a pledge to publicize credible claims of molestation, Clohessy claims. He kept silent on lawsuits against two Orlando priests that were settled during his tenure. And in 2007, Wenski wrote to parishioners that "personal issues" had arisen for Father Carlos Bedoya, who was quietly suspended from active ministry in Deltona. It later emerged that Bedoya had been charged with sexual battery against a man. Although the charge was later dropped, Clohessy says Wenski's statement was "deceptive."