Last week marked a milestone of sorts for John Wojnowski, the longtime protestor outside the Vatican’s US embassy, who was the subject of a lengthy profile in the July issue of The Washingtonian. For the first time in his life, he complained to law enforcement about the conduct of a priest. Not the village rector in northern Italy who he says molested him in the summer of 1958, when he was 15 years old—but a balding, bespectacled clergyman at the Vatican embassy, who, Wojnowski says, trampled his sign in August and then spit in his face last week after Wojnowski asked his name.
A spokesman for the US Secret Service confirmed that the agency was investigating the complaint but said no more, citing the ongoing inquiry. The Apostolic Nunciature, as the embassy is officially known, did not respond to several requests for comment.
Over Wojnowski’s 15 years of nearly daily picketing outside the nunciature, relations between the retired ironworker and the inhabitants of the boxy stone building on Embassy Row have tended toward a kind of strained disregard. While Wojnowski occasionally calls out “Eccellenza”—or “Your Excellency”—at the sight of the Vatican ambassador, the better part of his hours are spent standing beside traffic on Massachusetts Avenue with signs critical of the Catholic Church, particularly its handling of cases of clergy child abuse.
In recent years, however, Vatican officials have shown growing pique over his use of their lawn to assemble and disassemble his sign, an 8-by-3-foot banner that reads “Catholics Cowards” and hangs from jerry-rigged mop handles that come apart to fit in his rucksack. A video taken on Wojnowski’s camera phone and uploaded to YouTube in 2011 depicts the late ambassador, or apostolic nuncio, Pietro Sambi, warning Wojnowski to keep his belongings off embassy grass. “Otherwise it will disappear,” Sambi warns in the video.
This past August, while a reporter for the Georgetown Voice was interviewing Wojnowski on the lawn, a priest in black robes stepped out from the nunciature. In his August 30 piece, the reporter, Connor Jones, describes what happened next:
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 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 [current] Apostolic Nuncio to the US. . . . After the man stopped taking photos of us and I had retreated back into the sidewalk, a nearby police officer [a Secret Service officer stationed at the gates of the US Naval Observatory across the street] 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.
When we spoke earlier this week, Wojnowski told me he had put down his banner so he could photograph the priest taking photos of him. The priest then charged, Wojnowski said, stepping on his sign and snapping one of the wooden dowels.
(Officials at the DC Department of Transportation told me that the public right of way includes both the sidewalk outside the embassy and, to a depth of 23 feet, the lawn and driveway. Juan Amaya, the agency’s public space manager, said, “Public space is public space. A man or woman can exercise their First Amendment rights in a public place, as long as they’re not blocking traffic or interrupting the flow of pedestrians.”)
Things stayed mostly quiet until the evening of December 11, when the embassy appeared to be hosting a reception, with lots of people coming and going from the front door. The priest who’d stepped on his sign in August came out at about 7:15 PM, Wojnowski says, apparently to escort an older clergyman to a car parked around the corner. As the priest walked past, Wojnowski called out, “My name is John Wojnowski. What is your name?”
After the priest took leave of the older man, Wojnowski repeated his question. The priest allegedly approached, bumped Wojnowski with his bag, and spit in Wojnowski’s face. “I had spittle on my glasses, and it went into my mouth,” Wojnowski told me. He cleaned himself with his jacket sleeve.
His son, John Max Wojnowski, a police officer with Naval District Washington, stopped by a few minutes later, after his shift—as he often does. When he heard what happened, he encouraged his father to file a report with the uniformed Secret Service officers at the observatory gates, at Massachusetts Avenue and 34th Street, Northwest, across from the embassy.
“I told him, ‘If you want to have any justice in anything and you never file a complaint, it’s like it never happened,’” John Max told me.
After some initial confusion over whether the Metropolitan Police Department or the Secret Service had jurisdiction, a Secret Service officer took Wojnowski’s statement. John Max later e-mailed the service his father’s photos of the priest from the August day when the priest allegedly broke his sign. (The priest’s name and precise role at the nunciature have yet to be determined.)
An incident report obtained by The Washingtonian suggests that the alleged encounter last week is being investigated as a possible simple assault. Whether anything comes of the case is anyone’s guess, not least because of the immunity from prosecution accorded foreign diplomats.
For Wojnowski, the episode has been emboldening. He maintains that he has always wanted just one thing from the Church: financial “reparations” for the sexual abuse he says he suffered more than half a century ago. But Wojnowski has never filed a lawsuit, hired a lawyer, or gone to the police with complaints about the Church—before now. A relentless, solitary vigil, he feels, is his best and only hope. The Church, for its part, has offered him nothing more than free counseling, which he has rejected.
I reached Wojnowski by cell phone on a rainy afternoon earlier this week, while he was boarding Metro for the daily trek from his home in Bladensburg to his post on Massachusetts Avenue. He told me his police complaint represented neither a shift in tactics nor new faith in the legal system. “I am only hoping for human decency,” he said. He hated having to inconvenience his son, who returned from his commute home to Baltimore to accompany Wojnowski to the police station.
Being spit on is “an incredible insult,” he says, but “it is irrelevant how this [police] report turns out. I have to keep fighting.” By which he means more days, more years, on the corner.
The past few winters, under pressure from his son and daughter, he has flown to Southern California for short visits with his young grandchildren. But he says he won’t go this year. The events of the past few months are “a provocation that absolutely gives me more motivation.”
“I don’t want to die and leave this mess to my family,” said Wojnowski, who turns 70 in April. “I want there to be resolution.”