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Repairing the irreparable: John Wojnowski’s 14 year protest against abuse
He stands at the corner of Massachusetts Ave. and 34th St. NW, his seven-foot banner reading “NO SHAME OR SENSE: PEDOPHILIA.” The reverse reads “CATHOLICS: COWARDS.” The man stoops slightly while he paces. He periodically flips his sign as cars rush by.
John Wojnowski has maintained a one-man protest outside of the Vatican Apostolic Nunciature to the United States for the last 14 years. He clocks at least two hours at the corner each day—5 to 7 p.m., during weekday rush hour traffic—and spends at least two more hours in transit.
Wojnowski alleges he was sexually abused by a Catholic priest at the age of 15, inspiring his prolonged protest. When he started protesting in April 1998, child sexual abuse by priests was a marginal issue. Four years later, Catholic child molestation cases became a national news story when the Boston Globe reported on cases pending against five priests in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. Further investigation by academic, news, and governmental organizations revealed a wider problem in the Catholic Church—pedophilic priests were shifted from parish to parish, usually without addressing the underlying problem.
Wojnowski appears small in front of the ornate building, which houses the Holy See’s mission to the United States.
He speaks slowly, hesitating and stuttering after every few words in a thick Polish accent. When he started protesting, Wojnowski was 55 years old. He is now 69, and the time he spent outdoors shows: His fair complexion is stained red, his formerly light blond hair now thoroughly white. All he carries is a faded red sack where he stores his sign and a reusable Walmart bag which holds water and a few personal items.
I identify myself as a reporter; he smiles, shakes my hand, and suggests we move into the shade. He carefully removes his hat and sunglasses and begins to tell me his story.
In the early 90s, allegations of sexual abuse against Dallas priest Rudolph Kos began to surface. By 1998, a Texas court had awarded 11 victims of sexual assault $119.6 million in reparations—a record verdict for a sexual abuse case at the time. The Dallas diocese was held liable and Fr. Kos was sentenced to life in prison. Although the amount of money was eventually reduced, the Kos case became a model for victims of molestation at the hands of priests. The Catholic sex abuse scandal gradually morphed from several isolated incidents to a systemic criminal phenomenon, as more victims began to come forward and seek reparations.
The scandal was snowballing. A 2004 report by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice estimated that four percent of Catholic priests in the ministry had charges of molestation leveled against them. Dioceses began to buckle under legal pressure, with dioceses in Milwaukee, San Diego, and Spokane, Wash., filing for bankruptcy. The Associated Press estimates that the Catholic Church in the United States paid at least $2 billion in total to victims of sexual abuse from 1950 to 2007.
Although the child sexual abuse scandal stoked public anger, Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate published a report in April of 2006 suggesting that behavior among parishioners has largely remained unaffected by the scandal. “The CARA polls provide little evidence that Catholics have exited the Church in significant numbers as a result of the sexual abuse scandal. The proportion of the U.S. population identifying as Catholic has remained constant. Additionally, the CARA polls show little change in Mass attendance” the report reads.
The problem reached priests of nearly all affiliations. This past summer, Slate columnist Emily Yoffe went public with allegations of sexual harassment against Fr. Robert Drinan, a Georgetown law professor. She claims that while he was a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, Drinan cornered Yoffe in a car: “We got to where he was letting me off, he turned off the engine, and he began jabbering incoherently about men and women. Then he lunged, shoving his tongue in my mouth while running his hands over my breasts and up and down my torso.”
Yoffe made the case for why men and women who experience sexual assault at the hands of the church do not report their crimes right away, lending legitimacy to detractors who claim the whole ordeal was fabricated. Abigail Marsh, an assistant professor of Psychology at Georgetown, explained what victims of child sexual abuse generally experience.
“It’s variable,” she said. “But it’s very common for people to have, even decades later, an increased risk of all [psychological problems]: depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, ADHD, PTSD, and also physical problems that could be related to those symptoms.”
John Wojnowski was born in April 1943 in Warsaw, Poland at the height of Nazi occupation. His mother and father raised him and his two brothers in a devoutly Roman Catholic household. While Wojnowski was still very young, his family moved to Italy, where Wojnowski first enrolled in Catholic schools.
Though Wojnowski now identifies as an agnostic, he remembers his “naïve” years as a Roman Catholic. “I was in the seventh grade, in this Catholic boarding school. I was walking in the mess hall … I heard Pope Pious XII over the speaker giving the benediction. I was so religious I dropped on my knees and crossed myself.”
His religious upbringing continued into early adulthood. Wojnowski attended a Catholic high school in Milan. In the summer of 1958, a friend invited him and his brother to stay at a family home in Cuzzago, Italy. While away, a priest noticed Wojnowski’s arrival in the village. “The priest saw me, and he knew that in high school we had Latin. He said, ‘Come, I tutor you in Latin.’ I went.” Only John was invited. In that era, near-absolute trust was afforded to priests.
“Going to the building of the priest, I remember, all the kids laughing. They must have known what was going to happen. I remember kids laughing—that’s all I remember, kids laughing,” Wojnowski said.
It was then that John Wojnowski was molested.
Wojnowski’s brother came with him, but he was given a book and instructed to stay in the other room. “My brother was behind the dark door. [The priest] told me to sit at his desk. I sat. They tell you that priests give you alcohol, show you pornographic pictures…all kinds of introduction, but he was absolutely direct.”
“He tells me, ‘sit.’ I sat. He never opened a book. The very first thing he did, he put his hand on my knee,” Wojnowski says, and then pauses momentarily.
“My case may be unique, molestation-wise. Some people are molested repeatedly for many years. Mine was one occasion. It was so traumatizing…immediately I put it out. For 39 years, my personality changed, my appearance changed…I wasted my life avoiding people. Now, all my life, I was insecure, sad, withdrawn… I thought my case was unique.” At that point, child sexual abuse was widespread, but as Wojnowski did for 39 years, many victims kept their abuse a secret.
At this point, Wojnowski was interrupted by a priest, walking toward us from the embassy. The bald, heavy-set man pulled out a camera and started taking pictures of us. He did not say anything.
Wojnowski and I were standing about three feet into the grass surrounding the embassy, so we could stand in the shade while we spoke. I identified myself as a reporter and I offered to get off their grass, but the priest did not answer.
From where we were standing, another priest was barely discernible waiting at the doorway to the embassy. The onlooker fits the description of Carlo Maria Viganò, the Apostolic Nuncio to the U.S. (effectively the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S.). The nunciature did not respond to the Voice’s requests for comment.
After the man stopped taking photos of us and I had retreated back into the sidewalk, a nearby police officer caught the priest’s eye. Wojnowski had lowered his sign to the ground. Almost running, the priest attempted to step over Wojnowski’s sign to the right to get to the police officer. In the process, he stepped on the banner, breaking it.
The priest spoke a few words to the police officer. The police officer shook his head and the priest walked back into the nunciature.
Wojnowski was visibly pleased at what happened. “I’m grateful for this, I’m really grateful. You should be grateful for everything, right?” Wojnowski said. “It’s not upsetting. I like what happened here. It’s good that this happened. It made my day.”
He said that no one in the nunciature, in all his 14 years, had ever taken pictures of him like that.
Wojnowski returned to his story. To explain the effect the sexual abuse had on him, he reached into his bag for two pictures. The first, taken in grade school, shows a smiling youngster. “I was a happy kid,” he said.
But he was a different person after the abuse. “Something popped in my chest—this thump in my chest—when I was inside the room. Next thing, I was out of the building … and can you imagine the terrible feeling, so dark… I said, ‘I ruined my life forever.’ It’s all gone. For what? For nothing…the caution … Can you imagine? Being 14? I blocked it out.”
“My personality changed. My appearance changed. In high school, I remember, some kid asked, who I guess knew me from before. He asked me, ‘Why are you so sad?’ I remember—I knew I was lying. I would say, ‘My best friend died.’ I knew I was lying, but that’s what I would tell them to explain why.”
John Wojnowski has never held a job that requires a college education. He frequently refers to his eighth grade education and never claims to be any sort of high-minded activist. He prefers to frame himself as a fighter up against the juggernaut that is the Catholic Church. He blames his lack of intellectual or professional achievement on his experience of abuse. “My father had PhDs, and I was a dishwasher, a laborer, all my life. I guess I had some potential, but it’s all gone,” he said.
Word of the Kos judgment reached Wojnowski. “I was thinking—I was financially insecure all my life. And there was mention of millions of dollars in reparations,” he said. He is embarrassed to admit that the promise of a payout was his original motivation. “I said, ‘Lucky me. I was molested by a Catholic priest.”
The next week, he said, he hopped in his car and drove to a distant church where he wouldn’t be recognized. He walked in, found the priest, but couldn’t bring himself to sit down. Eventually, he told of his molestation.
The priest gave him a telephone number to call to receive help, which he called on a payphone to preserve anonymity. He scheduled a few appointments, but more profoundly, it was then that Wojnowski made the connection: this singular experience had destroyed his confidence and altered his life forever.
Because of this, Wojnowski still believes that he deserves monetary reparations. After exchanging a few letters with then-Archbishop of Washington James Hickey inquiring about the priest and the possibility of monetary compensation, the archdiocese stopped responding to his letters. Months went by. Growing exasperated, Wojnowski took to the streets for the first time.
He bought the supplies for a basic sign, only a few feet tall, which read “Bishop Lori, do you recognize this question mark?”
Bishop William Lori, to whom Wojnowski previously sent his letters, responded, saying, in Wojnowski’s words, “’Unfortunately, the priest who allegedly molested you died 10 years ago, so you have no case. But I will pray for you, and the Church will pay for your therapy’—not enough for a wasted life, right?”
Lori has publicly stated that he immediately investigated Wojnowski’s claim and acted in his power to redress any grievances.
Within the next few days, Wojnowski began showing up to his now-regular street corner with a sign reading, “MY LIFE WAS RUINED BY A CATHOLIC PEDOPHILE PRIEST.”
In his first year, Wojnowski maintained his anonymity, but with a picket as provocative as his, he was bound to receive some pushback and attention. But despite his attempts at anonymity, the man protesting every day outside the Nunciature was revealed as John Wojnowski when Washington City Paper published a piece about him in their Oct. 30, 1998 issue. Wojnowski insists that he did not give the reporter his name and specifically asked her not to print it, for fear that his mother, a devout Catholic, would read it.
The article, entitled “Holy War” and written by Elizabeth Murdock, was published, and Wojnowski’s name appeared in the headline. “The article had to look like a piece of journalism, right? She was allegedly supporting me!” Wojnowski exclaimed. He alleges that the nunciature gave the reporter his name.
The Voice was not able to contact Murdock for comment.
It’s cases like these which convince Wojnowski that the Church is out to get him. “The Church is a business. It’s a fraud, actually. They tried to shame me, they tried to ridicule me, they tried to expose me … and the ignorance.”
When he began demonstrating, the response from passers-by was mixed, and he claims he got death threats or warnings that he might be the victim of a drive-by shooting. While many honks drew his attention to thumbs-up, many more commuters only showed him the finger. Now, Wojnowski mostly receives smiles and waves of encouragement. Some commuters shout, “Hey John!” on their daily route from work.
The last statement the nunciature issued directly relating to Wojnowski was obtained by City Paper in 1998: “The Apostolic Nunciature respects Mr. Wojnowski and surely has for him sincere sentiments of Christian charity.”
These sincere sentiments, however, have never convinced Wojnowski. “I don’t expect nothing. I’m trying to get reparations. They are afraid to talk. I’m ready to talk, but they’re absolutely cowards.”
After asking when he’ll stop coming to Massachusetts Ave. every day, Wojnowski responds, “When I get reparation!”
“I have no option,” he said. “They expect me to give up or to die, but they started the war!”
His overall opinion of the Catholic Church is even less forgiving. “They are parasites. They are enemies of humanity. It has a history of aggressive ignorance. Copernicus, Galileo comes to mind, then Darwin.” Wojnowski harbors no hope for the Church in the future, unless it begins by offering up reparations to all victims of sexual abuse—even when the statute of limitations has expired.
Last year, Wojnowski appeared unannounced at a meeting of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Once he was recognized, the attendees gave him a standing ovation. When Wojnowski is offered pro-bono legal counsel, he refuses, because he cannot bring himself to trust strangers.
Wojnowski has reached a peculiar level of fame, at least in local circles. He could undoubtedly use his story to raise money for victims funds or himself, but he chooses not to. “There are organizations that do this. I am not an intellectual. If I knew what to do I would do it … This is all I can do. It may not be the best, but it is the only way I know how to do.”
Top, body, and bottom left photo: Lucia He
Bottom right photo: Courtesy John Wojnowski