When I called David Clohessy, director of SNAP, he said Wojnowski remains a singular figure in the survivors’ movement. The closest parallels aren’t particularly close. In the early 1990s, a man in Orlando walked up the aisle at church services, handing out flyers accusing a priest there of molesting him as a boy. In 2003, a police officer in Oxnard, California, who claimed he’d been molested multiple times as an altar boy, spent Holy Week in a round-the-clock fast and vigil outside a Los Angeles cathedral.
Though Wojnowski keeps his distance from other survivors, many know him, if not by name, then as the man with the signs outside the Vatican Embassy. Last year, Wojnowski wandered unannounced into SNAP’s annual conference, at a hotel in Crystal City. When people in the audience recognized him, Clohessy says, they gave him a roaring standing ovation.
“I remember just crying when I shook his hand,” Clohessy says, his voice catching. “It’s got to have been an incredibly long, lonely, hard, hard road for him. It’s emotional now just talking about it. So many victims are so completely trapped in shame and silence and confusion and self-blame, and I think they wish they had the fortitude to do something like that.”
Just as notable, Clohessy says, was Wojnowski’s going public four years before the issue drew widespread notice: “He’s made more people think about child abuse than all but probably a handful of people anywhere. Oprah Winfrey has made more people think about child abuse than John. But he’s in rarefied company.”
Clohessy likes to think Wojnowski has an influence on the Vatican officials who live and work in the nunciature. “I suspect that every single day, given the magnitude of this crisis, someone in that office is making some decision relative to abuse and cover-up, deciding whether and how to respond to the bishop who asks for their guidance on whether this perp should be moved or demoted or defrocked. Within hours or sometimes probably minutes of making that decision, they’ve seen John. That can only, only help.”
Bill Casey, an Alexandria man who has served on the national board of Voice of the Faithful, says Wojnowski’s form of protest “wouldn’t be the first choice for most people because it’s too hard.
“There are many victims who use other means,” Casey says. “They’ll have press conferences, they’ll do vigils, they’ll pass out leaflets when a known predator is living in a community. But I don’t know of any other single individual who has stood witness for such a long period of time.”
Precisely what the Apostolic Nunciature thinks of Wojnowski is unclear. The current nuncio, or Vatican ambassador, is Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a Northern Italian priest and former deputy governor of Vatican City who was reportedly pushed out of Rome because of his criticism of corruption and cronyism in the awarding of Vatican contracts. (His critiques became public this year after his letters to the pope were leaked to the Italian press in a scandal known as “Vatileaks.”) Viganò, who became nuncio to the United States last October, didn’t respond to phone calls, e-mails, faxes, and a certified letter requesting an interview for this story.
The Archdiocese of Washington, to which Wojnowski has appealed for compensation, issued a written statement to The Washingtonian saying it acted as soon as Wojnowski reported the allegations in a 1997 letter.
“The Archdiocese of Washington immediately contacted the diocese in Italy where the abuse allegedly occurred and which would be responsible for that priest’s conduct in an effort to find out what happened,” Chieko Noguchi, the archdiocese’s spokesperson, wrote. “It was found that the priest allegedly involved passed away many years ago. This information was provided to Mr. Wojnowski and he was encouraged to contact the diocese in Italy to pursue his claim of abuse. Additionally, the Archdiocese of Washington, in our concern for Mr. Wojnowski’s situation, offered him free counseling and therapy, which he has declined to accept.”
I went to meet Wojnowski for the first time on a cold, rainy afternoon. I arrived outside the nunciature early and took cover across the street under a bus shelter near the gate of the US Naval Observatory.
At 4:40, I noticed a slight man with khaki pants and heavy black shoes ambling toward me. A plaid scarf was held around his neck by an oversize safety pin. Slung over his shoulder was a salmon-colored sack with sorrypope.com written in black marker along its length. A loop of string around his neck traveled first to a cell phone in his shirt pocket, then to an old Casio wristwatch, its straps lopped off, that dangled at his waist. There was an air about him of an old-world train conductor.
I had no sooner asked whether he was Mr. Wojnowski than I realized I didn’t have to: On a patch above the right pocket of his olive-green military jacket—a relic from his Army days, I later learned—was wojnowski stitched in block letters.
To get to the nunciature, he takes two buses and the Metro from his home in Bladensburg. It’s a journey of 60 to 90 minutes each way. He exits the bus one stop early because there’s a wooded area across from the British Embassy where he can relieve himself. There are no public restrooms near the nunciature, and holding it in is one of his vigil’s many physical ordeals.
As rain pecked the shelter roof, he pulled from the sack a mismatched set of dowels and began lashing them end to end with plastic cinch ties and duct tape to form the rod from which his banners drape. He buys most of his gear from a dollar store near his home. “This is a mop handle, and this is a piece from a broom or something,” he said. “It’s a low-budget operation.”
He used to make his signs himself in his back yard, stenciling plywood or decorating fluorescent poster board with peel-off letters. Lately, he has been mail-ordering professional-looking eight-by-three-foot banners from a company in California. Since 1998, his signs have borne at least 68 messages, from the straightforward (catholic clergy molest boys worldwide) to the cryptic (rotontop.com) and occasionally scatological (watch catholic church stomping in her very own excrement).
The Apostolic Nunciature is a boxy three-story building of beige stone with a Mediterranean tile roof at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 34th Street. The Vatican flag, imprinted with the papal tiara and the crossed keys of St. Peter, hangs over an otherwise unmarked front door.
When I proposed a minor shortcut from the bus shelter, Wojnowski fretted about the absence of crosswalks. “Let’s keep it legal,” he said.
When the crosswalk signal finally flashed, we crossed the street and Wojnowski strode onto the nunciature’s front lawn. He unfurled his catholics cowards banner across the wet grass, slid the dowels through a set of rope loops, and, with a fluid sweep of his right hand, hefted the banner.
“Not in a million years,” he said, “did I think I’d do something like this.”
John Wojnowski, the eldest of three brothers, was born into a Catholic family in Warsaw in the midst of the April 1943 ghetto uprising.
The Nazis would murder at least 5 million Poles—3 million of them Jews and many of the others Catholic. A few months after his birth, Wojnowski’s mother, Cecylia, fled with him to her hometown, Czarnków, a small city some 250 miles west of Warsaw.
As a young man, Wojnowski’s father, Jan, had entered a seminary run by the Marian Fathers, a Catholic order. The Marians sent him to the Pontifical Gregorian University, an elite institution in Rome, where he got a PhD in philosophy but aborted his clerical training, deciding the priesthood wasn’t for him.
Back in Poland, he began working toward a second PhD, in sociology, but after the war the country’s leaders sent him to Italy, first as consul to Naples, then, in 1947, as consul general to Milan, where his family joined him.
Like other Polish diplomats of the era, Jan Wojnowski grew disenchanted with the new Communist government back home. In October 1948, Time magazine mentioned him in an article headlined displaced diplomats.
“A studious, courteous, bespectacled book collector, he had never been very happy in his consulate,” the article read. “Last summer, after a trip home, he cut out meat, ate only tea and toast for supper, and gave up buying books. Staffers wondered why he was saving his pennies. Last week they found out. Two days after his replacement arrived from Warsaw, the ex-consul bade them all farewell and proudly displayed two tickets for home, via Venice. Boarding the train next day, he bundled his family off before it reached Venice, roared across the Swiss border in a taxi, and hopped the first plane to Johannesburg, South Africa.”
John Wojnowski told me there was no Swiss border crossing and no flight to South Africa. Instead, the family hid out for a few months in two small Italian towns, Rapallo and Bottanuco, before resurfacing in Milan. “In Italy, after my father’s defection, we had to stop speaking Polish,” Wojnowski says. “We were told to tell people we were Danish.” In the phone book, the family was listed under a false last name, Saner.