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The Passion of John Wojnowski
Haunted by his past, he has stood outside the Vatican embassy nearly every day for 14 years. His lonely vigil has made him a hero to victims of sexual abuse. But will he ever find peace? By Ariel Sabar
Wojnowski is a fixture on Massachusetts Avenue during evening rush hour, almost never taking a day off. “There are not breaks in a war,” he says. Photograph by Melissa Golden.
Comments () | Published June 25, 2012

Time weighs on John Wojnowski. It wears him down. It winds him up.

Time, for Wojnowski, is not just the half century since the priest in the mountains of Italy touched him. It is also the lost days since then, the wasted months and years when he is sure he let everyone down: his parents, his wife, his children, himself.

Markers of time are there, too, in the ragged datebooks that cleave to his body like paper armor. While riding the bus late one night, after another of his vigils outside the Vatican’s United States embassy, he showed them to me: The 2010 datebook inhabits the right pocket of his frayed chinos, 2011 the left; the 2012 book, its pages bound by rubber bands, stiffens the pocket of his shirt.

He has come to this corner and stood with his signs for some 5,000 days. In his datebooks, he records—a word or two, just enough to jog memory—the sights and sounds that keep one day from bleeding into the next.

The Apostolic Nunciature, as the Vatican’s embassy is officially known, sits across the street from the tumbling red digits of the US Naval Observatory’s Master Clock, which displays official US time. There’s a strange symmetry between that clock, its seconds yoked to the oscillation of cesium atoms, and Wojnowski, whose own circuitry can at times seem as unblinking and relentless.

Almost every day for the past 14 years, Wojnowski has stood on the sidewalk outside the nunciature with signs familiar to any Washingtonian traveling on Massachusetts Avenue in Northwest DC: MY LIFE WAS RUINED BY A CATHOLIC PEDOPHILE PRIEST or CATHOLICS COWARDS or VATICAN HIDES PEDOPHILES. He carries his signs, like some cross, for hours. He pivots when the stoplight changes, to face the onrush. He walks up to the windows of tour buses so passengers can see.

For Wojnowski, every second of sign-bearing is precious. On the subway on his way to the nunciature, he used to change cars at each station so the greatest number of riders could see his message. On a bus ride up Massachusetts Avenue one afternoon, he scolded me for standing close to him as we prepared to exit. “Don’t hide my sign,” he said.

After 14 years, I asked, did every second still count? Hadn’t he earned a day of rest? “It’s inconceivable,” he said. “There are not breaks in a war.”

When his daughter and her family visited Washington a few years ago, he cut short visits to the National Zoo and the World War II Memorial so he could be at the corner at his usual hour. “He went right to Massachusetts Avenue for the rest of the day,” says his daughter, Kasia Bonner, a stay-at-home mother who lives in Southern California. “He went to ‘work.’ That’s what we call it.

“It’s his everything,” she says.

When Wojnowski wandered into a conference for victims of sexual abuse by priests, the room erupted in applause. Photograph by Melissa Golden.

Wojnowski turned 69 this year. He was for most of his life an ironworker. He wore a hard hat, toted a lunch pail, teetered on steel beams high above the ground. He built bridges and nuclear power plants and Smithsonian museums. But his toughness isn’t visible on the outside. He stands 5½ feet tall, with an expressive face and fine white hair that retains glimmers of its original red. His skin is so sensitive that it turns an almost translucent crimson in the sun. Wire-rimmed glasses rest low on his nose.

For a man with an eighth-grade education, his vocabulary is surprisingly broad and precise. His voice, a gruff staccato forged of a Polish-Italian upbringing, is often silenced by a stutter.

Two summers ago, on a hot walk home from his evening vigil, he was stricken by a heart attack. Two weeks later, he was back on the corner with his signs.

I met him outside the nunciature one February rush hour after dark, when temperatures had slipped into the 20s. Gusts whipped down Embassy Row, and after a few minutes I had trouble feeling my fingers. When my pen froze, Wojnowski handed me the mechanical pencil he uses to make inscriptions in his datebooks. He had been out for more than two hours, and his nose was dripping. “I hate the cold,” he said.

Wojnowski sees himself as a David: a righteous nobody at war with a colossus. He described himself to me variously as a cripple, a failure, a weakling, a naif. The forces in league against him, by contrast, were malevolent, arrogant, cowardly, parasitic.

“I’m a poor, ignorant peasant fighting this global institution,” he says. “If a person has a drop of honor, he cannot give up.”

But 14 years is a long time. It is long enough for daughters to marry, grandchildren to be born, hearts to grow old and falter. It’s long enough for the weights tied to the bottom of his banner to have etched ruts in the sidewalk’s concrete. It’s long enough to ask, as his children have, whether it’s time for a new strategy. Or time, even, to stop.

Yet beneath their concern for their father is a still unanswered question: Without justice, how is a wronged man—a wounded man—to heal?

John Wojnowski occupies an unusual place in the movement to hold the Roman Catholic Church accountable for sexual abuse of children by clergy. The issue came into public view in the United States in 1985 when a Louisiana priest who had been accused of molesting hundreds of children pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two decades in prison. It burst into full-blown scandal in 2002 when the Boston Globe published a series of articles about a former Massachusetts priest named John J. Geoghan. More than 130 people had accused Geoghan of fondling and raping them as children over Geoghan’s 34 years in the priesthood. To keep the allegations from coming to light, the archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, shuffled Geoghan from parish to parish without disclosing his history—a practice soon revealed as commonplace in dioceses across the United States.

“For decades, within the US Catholic Church, sexual misbehavior by priests was shrouded in secrecy—at every level,” the Globe reported. “Parents who learned of the abuse, often wracked by shame, guilt, and denial, tried to forget what the church had done. The few who complained were invariably urged to keep silent.”

A study commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops discovered that from 1950 to 2002 some 4,392 priests in the United States had faced allegations of sexually abusing about 12,500 minors, most of them boys. The accused represent about 4 percent of all Catholic priests in ministry over that period.

As the scope of the scandal grew, so did the money paid out to victims. According to an annual survey conducted by Georgetown University, from 2004 to 2010 American dioceses paid $1.6 billion to victims to settle sexual-abuse claims. The Archdiocese of Washington and its insurers paid nearly $1.9 million, including a $1.3-million settlement in 2006 with 16 men molested by priests between 1962 and 1982.

The scandal also fanned the growth of advocacy and support groups, such as the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Voice of the Faithful, and superlawyers who built a cottage industry representing abuse victims.

But in this set piece of American accusers, abusers, and advocates, Wojnowski remains an outlier. His alleged abuse took place in a small village overseas. He hasn’t sought the help of victims’ groups. And in his quest for reparations, he hasn’t filed a lawsuit, hired an attorney, or sent a claim to the Italian diocese in which he says a priest molested him.

His battle plan remains one of dogged, solitary public protest. A few Catholics I spoke to said they saw his sign-bearing as part of the Christian tradition of “witnessing.”

Wojnowski told me he chose the Apostolic Nunciature as his target not just because of its visibility—an average of 33,000 cars pass that stretch of Massachusetts Avenue each weekday—but also because he holds the pope personally culpable for the Church’s failure to make him whole.

“The question is for Rome,” Wojnowski says.

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  • Lauren

    I met John on the metro today.

  • Gordon Paterson

    The Great Controversy (by ellen white) explains what the Bible says what will happen to the vatican , it will be burnt to the ground along with the other beasts in the book of Revelation , the sad part is the people that satan decieves will also be destroyed , My prayer is that bitterness does not prevent anyone from forgiving their enemies therefore eliminating themseves from an eternal heaven where every tear is wiped away and we are returned to a world made new by our Creator.{ Revelation 14:6-12}.. says the whole world wanders after the beast and if it were possible to decieve even the very elect,(there are people that stick to the Bible ),and the commandments of God Hosea 4:6 says man will die from LACK of knowledge . God is in control ", it is all about WORSHIP '... we either do it mans way or do it Gods way , as in Gen 2:2 verified throughout the Bible Hebrews 4:4 , because of sin man chose to do it his way the human race has deteriated as in the days of Sodom

  • Slstillsee

    Thanks for your vigil, John. Shame on the Monsignor who spit on you and trampled your sign. Do they not realize "they" are the ones who perhaps deserve our spittle? The behavior of some and of most of the hierarchy is deplorable and despicable........

  • Skip Shea

    Thank you John.

  • Pappapol

    John Wojnowski's just cause has become a sinful obsession. It needs to end.

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Posted at 11:49 AM/ET, 06/25/2012 RSS | Print | Permalink | Comments () | Washingtonian.com Articles