Wenski Replaces Dorsey as Bishop of Orlando Diocese

By Mark I. Pinsky and Linda Shrieves
Orlando Sentinel [Orlando FL]
November 14, 2004

Pope John Paul II on Saturday named Bishop Thomas Wenski to succeed Bishop Norbert Dorsey as head of the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, effective immediately.

In July 2003, Wenski was named bishop coadjutor, signifying he would automatically take over for Dorsey when he retired. The common practice under this pope is for bishops to submit letters of resignation as they near their 75th birthday. Sometime thereafter, at the Vatican's discretion, the resignation is accepted.

Dorsey will not be 75 until Dec. 14, but no reason was given for the early appointment. The incumbent had no complaint about the timing of the hand-over to Wenski.

"He's ready, and I'm ready," Dorsey said in an interview.

Dorsey, who will continue to live in Orlando, said he now hopes to begin a fitness program and to learn how to use a computer. He would still like to do pastoral care at prisons and hospitals, and perhaps fill in for other parish priests.

"I'm still a priest and a bishop," Dorsey said. He had more earthly matters in mind after Saturday's announcement, however. His first job after the news conference was to get a flu shot.

Wenski, 54, becomes the fourth bishop of the Diocese of Orlando. Created in 1968, it covers nine Central Florida counties between St. Augustine and Tampa. Because Wenski was installed as an Orlando bishop in an elaborate ceremony at Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine in August 2003, there will be no additional ceremony, the diocese said.

Wenski, who is attending the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Washington, D.C., said one of the greatest challenges he will face is the continued growth of the diocese.

"In Florida, we have to build more churches, parishes and more schools and really respond to the population shifts going on in this country," Wenski said.

Among his first moves, he said, will be to encourage parishioners and priests to identify the needs of the diocese and the community.

He also would like to help steer more young people toward the priesthood. "In an individualistic society, young people ask themselves, 'What do I want to do with my life?' I'd like to encourage them to reframe the question and ask, 'What does God want me to do with my life?' "

Before coming to Orlando, Wenski -- like Dorsey -- was auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Miami, where he worked with Hispanic and Haitian parishes. He is fluent in Spanish and Creole, as well as Polish, the language of his immigrant grandparents.

In recent years, Wenski has emerged among the nation's bishops as one of the most outspoken advocates for the rights of immigrants and refugees. Given his prominence and relative youth, there is speculation that he may one day wear a cardinal's red hat.

Period of growth

Dorsey, a member of the Passionist Order of priests before being appointed bishop of Orlando in May 1990, presided over a diocese that grew from 230,000 parishioners to 400,000 today.

Under his leadership, 16 new parishes, missions, and schools were added, many of them for the area's growing Hispanic community. Radio Paz, a Spanish-language station, and health clinics for migrant and farmworkers were started. He established a priests' cemetery at the San Pedro Spiritual Center in Winter Park and also supervised the move of diocese headquarters from its longtime location on Robinson Street, across from Lake Eola, to the refurbished post office building, also on Robinson.

Dorsey helped complete work on two projects begun by his predecessor, Bishop Thomas Grady: Mary, Queen of the Universe Shrine, a church built to minister to Central Florida's millions of tourists, and Bishop Grady Villas, a residential community primarily for adults with mental disabilities.

Like bishops throughout North America, Dorsey was challenged by the clergy sex-abuse scandal that shook the Roman Catholic Church. During Dorsey's tenure, at least three Central Florida priests were disciplined or removed after allegations of sexual misconduct with either children or adults. No accusations were ever lodged against Dorsey personally.

But David Clohessy, head of SNAP, the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, criticized Dorsey's handling of the case of Arthur Bendixen. The former chancellor of the Diocese of Orlando was named in a civil suit filed on behalf of a former altar boy who said he was sexually abused during a 12-year relationship starting in 1982. In court documents, Dorsey denied allegations that he ignored reports from a priest in 1992 about the alleged abuse.

Dorsey suspended Bendixen in February 1994, and Bendixen left the priesthood a month later. A state judge ruled the diocese could not be sued because of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Nevertheless, Dorsey took measures to ensure the widespread abuse in other dioceses did not take place here. All employees and volunteers with the diocese are now fingerprinted, and criminal records are checked with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI. A sexual-abuse response team -- including lay people, victims and law enforcement -- was established by the Orlando diocese in 1995, before the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops mandated such panels. Apologies and counseling were offered to victims.

"I always tried to reach out to them, to apologize in my own name and in the name of the church, and to provide assistance," Dorsey said last week.

When Dorsey arrived in Central Florida, local Catholics watched to see what kind of man had been sent to replace Bishop Grady.

Jeanne D'Agostino Rodriguez -- who moved to Orlando in 1946 -- recalls that when she met Dorsey, he seemed a bit distant.

"But when I went to his first Christmas Mass here and watched the way he reacted with those children, I thought, 'Oh, I love you. You are a good man,' " Rodriguez said. His quiet style, she learned, belied a warm personality.

As the diocese flourished, Dorsey oversaw not just faith and personnel matters, but a building boom.

"Bishop Dorsey was part of the building process, from step one through completion," said Don Lorbecke , 46, a Knights of Columbus officer who serves in the bishop's honor guard.

Dorsey has been a strong supporter of interfaith and ecumenical activities.

"Where we can work together on these things, we have," he said.

The outgoing bishop served as honorary chairman of the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program at the Jewish Community Center in Maitland in May 2003.

"I come to this gathering as a friend and a fellow citizen, a neighbor, to encourage my Jewish brothers and sisters," the bishop said at the time.

The Rev. Fred Morris, executive director of the Orlando-based Florida Council of Churches, hailed the bishop's interfaith activities. Dorsey appeared on the platform at an ecumenical gathering for peace and harmony after the attacks Sept. 11, 2001.

"He's a real pastor -- he cares about people," Morris said last week. "As he's taken care of the administrative details and responsibilities, he never loses sight of people. It's easy to lose sight of people when you have a post like his, but he has resisted that and has always maintained a pastoral concern."

For his part, Dorsey said he has few regrets.

"It's been quite a wonderful experience," he said. "Some hard days, but every life has those."

Mark I. Pinsky can be reached at or 407-420-5589. Linda Shrieves can be reached at or 407-420-5433.


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