A 'Faithful Friend' for the Diocese

By Alberta Lindsey
Times-Dispatch [Richmond VA]
April 4, 2004

The Most Rev. Francis X. DiLorenzo is laid back enough to greet his new flock with "aloha."

But he's tough enough to enforce a "zero tolerance" policy when it comes to priest sexual abuse of children.

DiLorenzo, who will become bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond on May 24, has led the Diocese of Honolulu for about 10? years.

During his tenure, he removed five priests for sexually abusing minors. Four of them were quietly dismissed several years before the national sexual-abuse scandal broke in 2002.

Patrick Downes, spokesman for the Honolulu diocese, said DiLorenzo spoke out in Dallas in 2002 when the U.S. Conference of Bishops was ironing out a plan for dealing with sexual misconduct.

DiLorenzo told fellow bishops that just one incident of abuse is enough to tarnish the priesthood, Downes said in a phone interview.

"He's given the people of Hawaii trust that the diocese would do the right thing," Downes added. "He's been good for us, and we are going to miss him."

An abuse victim, Eugene Saulibio, said DiLorenzo handled the complaints well administratively by getting the priests out. But Saulibio said he had asked three times to meet with the bishop and was turned down.

"I wanted to tell him how I felt. I wanted some closure. I've been Catholic all my life," he said.

The Rev. Joseph Grimaldi, vicar general of the Diocese of Honolulu, said DiLorenzo is fair and holds people accountable.

DiLorenzo was named bishop of Richmond last week and spent several days here meeting priests in his new diocese. He succeeds the Most Rev. Walter F. Sullivan, who retired in September after leading the diocese for 29 years.

Virginia and Hawaii have things in common, DiLorenzo said. "They both have mountains and water and a big space in between. You have ethnic people here. You have charm. You have a lot of small rural parishes like in Hawaii."

Among his challenges will be moving from an Asian and Pacific island culture to Richmond.

Pope John Paul II gave him no mandates, said DiLorenzo, 61. "It's up to the bishop and his advisers - and there are tons of them - to give you what is needed. . . . I will have to get out and find out what the people need."

DiLorenzo continued: "My experience in the past is that the local parish has to be attuned so that it can meet people's needs. The local parish has to be warm and welcoming. The pope said, 'Go make it happen.'"

Among the challenges DiLorenzo faced in Hawaii was a shortage of priests. He dealt with it by borrowing priests from Asia. Even though Richmond also faces a shortage of priests, DiLorenzo said he doesn't see priestless parishes as the way of the future. "I will strive to have a priest and an ordained deacon in each parish."

People who know Richmond's new bishop say he's a warm, friendly man who has the ability to communicate well with the young and the old.

When DiLorenzo goes out on the streets of Honolulu, the homeless recognize him and call him by name, Grimaldi said. "He talks and jokes with them."

He's neither liberal nor conservative, but prefers the middle of the political spectrum.

"It's our position to raise consciousness on moral issues and invite people to address pro-life and social-justice issues," DiLorenzo said at a news conference Wednesday in Richmond. "We raise our voices to the people in government. We will ask them to take into consideration Catholic positions. We don't force them."

One of his pet projects is making parishes more welcoming, said Sharon Chiarucci, director of the welcoming-parish program in Honolulu.

The bishop asked each of his 66 parishes to do a self-assessment of its strengths and weaknesses. "After that he met with [members of] each parish. It was his way of getting to know the parishes from their perspective. It also helped the parishes grow closer to Jesus. It's worked well," Chiarucci said.

"Everyone has recognized over time the value of asking people in the pews how they think they are doing," she added. "He has high expectations of the people who work for him, including the clergy. He's very free with his 'thank yous.'"

The Rev. Gary Secor, Honolulu's vicar for clergy and director of vocation, describes DiLorenzo as direct. "He's not afraid to take action and make decisions. He's a hands-on person. He likes to know what's going on, especially regarding personnel matters. And he takes advice well."

When DiLorenzo's name is mentioned, almost everyone immediately says he has a good sense of humor.

He uses humor to help people relax, and he's no stuffed shirt, Secor said. People in Hawaii are informal and DiLorenzo fits right in. The bishop often wears an open collar and is rarely seen in a suit.

"He's not the type to feel he has to be decked out all the time. He really has tried to be sensitive to the local culture," Secor said.

When not on the job, DiLorenzo sometimes wears Hawaiian shirts. He likes Italian food but has to watch his heart. He's on a wellness program and exercises regularly. He likes action videos and model trains. Someone gave him a train set, which he set up on the coffee table in his office. And, when on the mainland, he enjoys relaxing at his cabin in the Pocono Mountains.

A Philadelphia native, DiLorenzo always wanted to be a priest.

"When he was real small, he played church with a couple girls and boys," said DiLorenzo's father, Samuel, who lives in Wyneewood, , Pa. "He was always the priest. My wife gave him an old sheet and cut a hole in it for his head. That was his robe. My daughter was a parishioner, and he would serve her communion."

The priest's younger brother, Paul, said his brother's childhood was different. "Early in his teens, he went to seminary. There were times when we didn't see him except on holidays and a couple times a year. I would sneak onto the seminary grounds with my friends and visit him."

Paul DiLorenzo continued: "He's a big supporter for finding ways to help people who don't have access to power. He's a good champion for the underdog."

Some people in the Richmond diocese already know their new bishop.

The Rev. Michael Renninger, rector of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart on Laurel Street, grew up in a Pennsylvania church where DiLorenzo was a priest.

"I don't think he remembers me as a kid," Renninger said. "I was impressed with how clear and engaging his homilies were."

Also a Philadelphian, Sister Cora Marie Billings, director of the Richmond diocesan Office for Black Catholics and pastoral coordinator of St. Elizabeth Catholic Church in North Side, has known DiLorenzo since the 1970s, when he was one of her professors at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.

"He is an excellent teacher. His humor, sensitivity and ability all came out. He made sense," she said.

Sister Janice Marie Johnson of Allentown, Pa., who has known DiLorenzo 28 years calls the bishop "a very faithful friend." Sister Janice also was a student of DiLorenzo's at St. Charles.

As a teacher, he was always well prepared, she said. "He is able to communicate so people can understand. He's also good at spontaneous questions."

"He seemed to really enjoy teaching," added Sister Boreta Singleton, now a teacher at St. Aloysius School in New York City's Harlem area. DiLorenzo was chaplain at Immaculata University, near Philadelphia, when Sister Boreta was a student.

"You always came out of class feeling good about what you had done. He was never boring," she said.

When DiLorenzo was given the title monsignor, she recalled, students at the university gave him a pair of scarlet socks.

"He wore them the day he was made monsignor."

Contact Alberta Lindsey at (804) 649-6754 or


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