Archbishop Thomas Wenski: Tea Party conservative and church radical

Dressed all in black, the biker roars his 1,800-cc Harley-Davidson Street Glide to a halt on the gravely shoulder of Florida Avenue in Lakeland. Ray-Bans hide his eyes. With his spike-topped black helmet glinting in the South Florida sun, he more closely resembles a Prussian soldier than Easy Rider.

Lucas Benitez spots the motorcyclist and his palms begin to sweat. All day, the stocky Mexican with a buzzcut has led a thousand Latino tomato pickers on the 11-mile march from Plant City to Lakeland to protest the stingy pay of $50 per two tons of fruit torn off the vine. When he looks at the biker, all he can think is: Not another pinche redneck picking a fight.

Then the heavyset motorcyclist steps from his machine and ambles toward the marchers. "Buenas tardes," he says, holding out a hand. "I'm Bishop Thomas Wenski."

Pulling a faded black Army cap over his graying hair, the Orlando bishop falls into stride alongside the protesters in their bright green T-shirts. When they reach the headquarters of the nation's largest supermarket chain, Publix, Wenski climbs onto the back of a produce truck.

"In this long march of ours," he says in Spanish, Bible in hand, "we may feel tired, but we will never tire of seeking justice and a better life for all our brothers and sisters."

That was April 17, 2010. Three days later, Pope Benedict XVI named Thomas Gerard Wenski the new archbishop of Miami. He now oversees the religious life of more than a million Catholics in one of the church's most internationally significant but challenging strongholds.

Wenski is unlike anything the church has ever seen. He's a hard-charging, hog-driving cleric and licensed pilot who speaks six languages fluently. In the past seven months, he has come on like a blessed freight train, booting dozens of longtime priests from their too-comfortable parishes and suing the City of Miami for $140 million. He's risked the ire of Miami Cubans by engaging the island's communist government and had his phone tapped by the Castro regime. Just two weeks ago, he helped open the first seminary in Cuba since the revolution.

But on social issues, he has become a rabid, Tea Party-style conservative whose ban on even discussing condoms might have led to hundreds of Haitians contracting HIV.

"We are 30 years into an epidemic that has cost millions of lives," says Vanessa Mills, director of AIDS resource center Empower U. "It doesn't matter if you're the archbishop of Miami. Anyone denying that condoms save lives is being incredibly irresponsible."

On a cool October night in 1969, a river of shaggy college students winds across the dimly lit central quad of the University of Miami as campus police look on. The students clench candles, handmade signs, and the occasional joint. One of the marchers, a chubby 18-year-old with a seminary haircut, sings John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance" in a deep, off-key voice. He thumbs prayer beads in his pocket and drops the cuss words from chants: "One, two, three, four. We don't need your... war!"

Like many of the baby-boom protesters of that era, Tommy Wenski was born into a working-class family with immigrant parents. His father, Chester, had come to the United States from Poland as a young child. After fighting for his adopted country against the Nazis, Chester Wenski ran a small stuccoing business and painted houses in the fast-growing Palm Beach County town of Lake Worth. He was happy to have a steady job, a car in the driveway, and a Polish beer waiting for him in the refrigerator after a long day spackling the suburbs in the hot Florida sun.

Tommy was born October 18, 1950, in West Palm Beach, the first of two kids. His mom, Louise, made sure the boy and his younger sister, Mary, were raised Catholic. Mother Wenski was Polish-American, born in Detroit, and so devout she had almost become a nun. She attended mass every day at Sacred Heart Church and sent her children to school there. Louise and Chester spoke Polish to one another, and young Tommy grew up proud of his roots. "I had a keen sense of my identity as a Polish-American," he recalls. "Those hyphens don't make anyone any less American." For the rest of his life, he would see immigrants as kindred souls.

By third grade, Tom had decided to become a priest. After school, he would make his sister dress up like an altar boy and then transform water into wine in their bedroom. He was a quiet, bookish child, but no saint. When he was 7 years old, he convinced his sister to climb a ladder to the roof and left her there for an hour. "He is extremely smart and very persuasive," says longtime friend Father Kenneth Whittaker, whom Wenski coaxed out of retirement to preach at Our Lady of Mercy in Deerfield Beach. "When you listen to him, it's a little bit like a trap."

At age 13, Wenski left home to attend St. John Vianney Minor Seminary, a now-defunct high school for priests in Southwest Miami-Dade. It was 1963, four years after the Cuban revolution, and the Magic City was transforming as thousands fled the island for the security of South Florida. Wenski threw himself into learning Spanish, rehearsing monologues in his sparsely furnished room at night, and practicing them the next day on waitresses in Little Havana. He sang Olga Guillot's boleros to pick up Cuban slang. His friends called him el cubanazo, "the super Cuban."

"He was a big bull," recalls Bill Horton, who played the occasional football game against the portly priest-to-be. "It wasn't easy to get around him. I think he was full-grown at birth." Off the gridiron, Wenski was also mature beyond his years. Even among his fellow seminarians, he was well known for passionate speeches in support of César Chávez and Florida farm laborers. "He was always on another mission for social justice," Horton says.

Wenski was caught up in the times in other ways. Unlike most of his classmates, he attended demonstrations against the Vietnam War and Kent State student killings in 1970. He challenged his professors on church policy, including priest celibacy and barring women from the profession. His natural charm, warmth, and intelligence won over professors who otherwise might have seen him as a rabble-rouser.

After graduating from Vianney, he attended St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach. He worked hard, spending his sparse free time mowing lawns for the elderly or perfecting his Cuban-accented Spanish.

"We almost never saw him," says his sister, Mary Engle, now 59 years old and a legal secretary. She shares her sibling's long Polish nose, sallow skin, and flaxen hair. She's shier than the archbishop and humble. She attends church once a week but isn't as religious as her brother. "Who is?" she asks.

When Wenski became a priest in summer 1976, his sister and 3-year-old niece, Angela, attended the ceremony. As little Angela saw her uncle lay down on the floor to be ordained, a tradition that symbolizes dying and then rising like Christ, the child became terrified. "Is he dead?" she yelled. But at 26 years old, Wenski was just being reborn.

His first assignment was at the largely Hispanic Corpus Christi Catholic Church in Allapattah. Though his Spanish came in handy, a group of 50 Haitians in the back of the large, blocky church caught his eye. Mostly refugees who had fled the murderous regime of François "Baby Doc" Duvalier, they clapped and sang with abandon.

Wenski learned a few phrases in Kreyol, and soon those casual greetings turned into classes at Florida International University. By 1978, the young priest found himself living for three months in the tiny Haitian village of Ducis. He braved tropical storms to give Mass in remote chapels and came down with dengue fever. He had found his people.

Larry Pierre will never forget the phone call.

It was the early '90s, and AIDS-related deaths had reached an all-time high in the United States. Hundreds were perishing every month in South Florida, many in Miami. Fear and misinformation were rampant. Yet a young female volunteer from Pierre's nonprofit, the Center for Haitian Studies, had returned buoyant from a presentation on AIDS prevention at Little Haiti's largest church, Notre Dame d'Haiti. Parishioners had approached her afterward asking for condoms and more information, she excitedly told Pierre. Faced with the virus's devastating effect on the Haitian community, they figured it was a solid start.

Then the phone rang. It was the church's priest, Thomas Wenski.

"I received a call from him and said, 'Hi, Tom. How you doing?'" Pierre remembers. "But he shouted, 'I'm not calling you to bullshit around. I'm calling you to tell you don't you dare distribute information about condoms at my church."

"I wasn't expecting that from a priest," Pierre says.

After three feverish months in Haiti, Wenski had returned to Miami in 1979 as one of only a few Kreyol-speaking priests in the region. Archbishop Edward McCarthy immediately put him in charge of a larger group of Haitians at the giant, blue-domed Saint Mary's Cathedral at NW Second Avenue and 75th Street. But Wenski had bigger plans. While most Miamians wondered about the fate of the tens of thousands of Cubans pouring into the city, the young priest focused on the scores of Haitians washing ashore. They needed a church of their own.

Wenski searched for months for a suitable site. Finally, he found one: Notre Dame Academy, a shuttered Catholic girls' school at NE Second Avenue and 62nd Street. But when he proposed transforming the empty building into a Haitian church, many Miami Catholics and some priests objected, arguing it would be like herding them into a ghetto. But with McCarthy's blessing, Wenski went ahead.

Notre Dame d'Haiti opened in 1981. Even as he was struggling to start services, Wenski lobbied the Reagan administration for the right to visit Haitian immigrants locked up at the Krome Detention Center, a tent city surrounded by barbed wire near the swampy Everglades. Finally, on Christmas 1981, Wenski and McCarthy were allowed in. The young, Kreyol-speaking priest gave Mass to 500 refugees. They were gaunt and weak from a hunger strike, but they sang, danced, and cried at the sight of their first visitors in months.

The next year, Wenski picked up the first group of Haitians released from Krome and drove them in a battered, old school bus to Notre Dame d'Haiti. Soon the new church was a magnet for thousands of other Haitians fleeing riots and famine at home.

Wenski earned the trust of many by walking around the neighborhood with a German shepherd at his side. He even caught robbers inside Notre Dame several times, once locking an invader in the pantry until police arrived.

Throughout the '80s, Wenski helped establish so many Haitian missions around South Florida that travel became a burden. So he persuaded Tom Equels, a decorated Vietnam pilot and friend, to give him lessons at Tamiami Airport. Soon enough, Wenski was flying solo from Miami to Homestead and then up to Fort Pierce and back to deliver Mass in Kreyol three times a day.

In his Haitian parishioners, Wenski found a calling like that of Pope John Paul II, who at the time was rekindling Catholicism in communist Poland. Both Poles and Haitians were intensely religious people in need of leadership, the young priest believed.

And like John Paul, he became increasingly conservative, particularly regarding abortion and contraception. "I saw these Haitian women having babies in very dire straits, here in poverty without legal status," he recalls. "But they still raised those children because they saw in them some hope for the future. Then you have some coed whose father is a PhD someplace ready to get an abortion because of a lack of... hope."

But as HIV rates soared among Miami Haitians in the early '90s, Wenski's increasing moral conservatism led to confrontations with community activists. After the angry phone call from Wenski, Larry Pierre began to hear stories about the priest badmouthing him. A mutual friend said Wenski had loudly mocked Pierre after a few too many drinks at a bar in Port-au-Prince. "He even called the director of our foundation, saying I was encouraging people to have sex," Pierre recalls. "Without a doubt, he was trying to get our funding cut."

The argument had long-lasting effects in Little Haiti, to this day a community disproportionately blighted by HIV.

"We still can't even get into churches," says Johnny Rogers, a case manager at Empower U. "It's very irresponsible of the Catholic Church in Miami. Condoms are 99.7 percent safe. It's the only thing we have to keep these people alive."

"I'm a Christian," Rogers says, sitting in a small Liberty City office that draws hundreds of desperate patients pleading for medication. "But the Bible was written hundreds of years ago. The church preaches abstinence, but they're living in the real world. Their stance just causes more problems."

Earlier this month, a young, HIV-positive Haitian man came in to see Rogers. He had visited months before to pick up antiretroviral drugs and looked healthy. But now his T-cell count had plunged to near zero. He was dying: His lymph nodes were swollen, and his eyes had sunk into his cheeks. "What happened?" Rogers asked him.

"I pray now," the man answered, explaining he had stopped taking the medication and begun going to church.

"When they finally get to us, it's too late," Rogers says angrily.

Wenski also took a hard line against vodou. "My job as a priest is to preach the gospel, and that requires asking people to turn away from paganism," he says matter-of-factly.

"The guy feels like he must speak for all Haitians," Pierre says. "Not everyone is happy about that."

A year later, it was Cubans' turn to take offense at Wenski acting as one of their own. In October 1996, Hurricane Lili shook Cuba like a rag doll. The storm left tens of thousands homeless and hungry. Wenski, who had been appointed head of Catholic Charities several months earlier, saw opportunity in the crisis. The priest announced he would lead a humanitarian mission to the island.

Cuban exile radio stations were outraged. The donations would reinforce the Castro regime. One of the collection sites, the revered Cuban shrine Our Lady of Charity, even received bomb threats. But Wenski pressed ahead, even persuading President Bill Clinton to authorize the first direct flight between the two countries in months.

Wenski arrived in Havana on October 26 with 80,000 pounds of food, most of it donated by the Cuban exile community. When Cuban officials discovered political slogans scrawled on sacks of rice and beans, they threatened to send the plane right back. But Wenski waited them out. After ten days in a Havana hotel, he finally watched starving campesinos gobble up the donated food.

As with his trip to Haiti 17 years before, the timing was perfect for professional advancement. Soon he was named auxiliary bishop of Miami. He advocated for immigrants' rights but also became more publicly conservative. In 2000, he picked a fight with hospitals over voluntary sterilization of women. "Sterilization is evil," he told the Miami Herald. "It is a mutilation that frustrates the purpose of the marriage act." He even pushed — unsuccessfully — for a ban on the procedure in secular hospitals partnering with Catholic hospitals.

That position won plaudits from his bosses. In 2003, he was promoted again — to bishop of Orlando. It was another stepping stone for the ambitious priest. In May 2009, he made headlines in USA Today and on MSNBC by slamming the University of Notre Dame for giving Barack Obama an honorary degree. He called Obama "one of the most radical pro-abortion presidents" and lambasted Notre Dame for its "thoughtlessness." Two weeks before the address — in which Obama called for a civil discourse on abortion — Wenski delivered a "Mass of Reparation" in Orlando to repair the damage done by the university's "insensitivity."

"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."

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.

After Mass is over, Wenski stands on the steps of Our Lady of Charity, known as La Ermita to the Cubans spilling into the parking lot in small, boisterous groups. In the soft glow of the street lamps, the archbishop surveys the scene, from Mercy Hospital out to the bay. "This is a very emotional place for Cubans," he says. "They know that these same waters touch the shores of Cuba." Then he pauses as if measuring in his mind the distance to Havana. "These aren't easy times for me or Miami," Wenski says. "But as John Paul II once said, 'The trick is not to be afraid.'"

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