By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
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By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Wenski insists the criminal allegations against Bedoya kept him from probing the matter for several months. "After I did my investigation, I decided to let the man return to the ministry," he says. "The accusation was made, but it couldn't be substantiated enough to say that this man should be removed completely from the ministry.
"We're committed to trying to heal those that have been victimized," Wenski adds. "We offer counseling, erring on the side of caution... The whole system of justice is a sham if you're going to be presumed guilty every time there is an accusation."
Wenski is the same fiercely intelligent man who once marched against war and questioned his teachers. But during his rise in the church, it seems he has lost the fiery spirit of independence. Asked if ending mandatory celibacy for priests would prevent sexual abuse, he scoffs. "Celibacy is not the problem," he insists. "In fact, if those priests had been celibate, those kids would not have been abused."
On a cool November night, Our Lady of Charity shines like a lantern across Biscayne Bay. Inside the shrine, Archbishop Wenski stands beneath a 30-foot black-and-white mural charting the evolution of the church in Cuba. Nearby is a delegation of bishops and priests from the communist island — among the first to formally visit this 43-year-old cradle of the exile. The small neomodern church located just north of Mercy Hospital is filled with three generations of Cuban-Americans — from el exilio to Mariel to Elián. Their eyes are fixed on the Anglo in front of them. "For 50 years, religious freedoms have been discouraged in Cuba," Wenski says in Spanish. "But despite its weakened situation and reduced numbers, the church has survived."
This is the challenge that could make or break the ambitious archbishop's run at cardinal or perhaps even pope. The man who taught himself a Cuban accent is now caught between a Cuban government finally willing to work with the church, and Cuban-Americans, who decry cooperation as criminal. Wenski is walking a 90-mile tightrope between them.
Just two days earlier, Wenski had returned from a brief trip to Havana for the inauguration of the first new seminary since the revolution. During the event, Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega praised the Cuban government for supporting the seminary. Afterward, however, President Raúl Castro, a camera crew in tow, sauntered up to Wenski and harangued him for saying several days earlier that Communism had failed the island's poor blacks and mulattos. Later, the archbishop found a message from a dissident waiting for him at his hotel. But when he tried to dial the number, Cuban security forces intercepted his phone call. "Meddling foreigners aren't welcome here," a gravely voice said on the other end.
The criticism continued when Wenski flew back to Miami. Cuban-American media assailed him for not criticizing Castro or demanding the release of political prisoners. "In Cuba, you gain things quietly," Wenski explains. "A lot of patience is required. Miami, on the other hand, has always been a very volatile place."
Wenski has embraced that volatility like few leaders anywhere. This past October, less than six months after taking over, he made sweeping changes to the archdiocese, moving or replacing more than 35 priests in a week and reopening at least one church — Saint Robert of Bellarmine in Allapattah — that Favalora had closed. "It was a way to shake things up," Wenski says with a grin. "And there are more changes on the way."
But the sweeping changes have drawn even more controversy to the Harley-riding padre. Father Jim Fetscher was recently moved from his cozy, 28-year post at Saint Louis in Pinecrest to Saint Sebastian, a small church hidden near Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. Wenski broke the news to Fetscher as the priest was getting on a plane for vacation.
"Bishop, I don't know what to say," Fetscher recalls telling Wenski. "I really thought I probably would be buried out of Saint Louis."
Wenski's reply: "Maybe that won't come quite as fast now."
A few days later, Fetscher told his parishioners the move would be "painful." It was also a demotion. "I went from 81 employees to two overnight," Fetscher says. "It was more than a shock."
The new archbishop has also moved aggressively to shore up the church's finances, hit hard by the recession and sexual abuse lawsuits. Wenski's office sued the City of Miami for $139 million this past October, arguing that a new zoning law reduced the waterfront property value around Our Lady of Charity.
Miami Catholics of all backgrounds are looking to Wenski to reverse the fortune of an archdiocese and a city in decline. "He's going to put the church back on the map," insists Cuban-American Enrique Machado, who attended the sermon with the Cuban bishops at Our Lady of Charity. He doesn't hesitate when diagnosing the archdiocese's ills.
"The last few years have been tough," the 71-year-old with bad teeth and Coke-bottle glasses says. "Favalora didn't do much. He was more of a corporate guy. But this new guy — he's a missionary."
Andy Gómez, senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, believes Wenski could continue moving up in church ranks. "I wouldn't be surprised if a couple of years from now, Wenski is named a cardinal," he says, but adds that the Archdiocese of Miami is not a traditional steppingstone to cardinalship. And, he says, Wenski's hard-charging approach has risks, chiefly getting pulled too deeply into Calle Ocho politics. "Wenski has definitely already stepped on some toes," he says.