News & Politics

The Man With the Sign

John Wojnowski holds up his new sign of protest a block away from the Vatican Embassy. He still carries his old sign with him and attempts to display both simultaneously whenever possible.

“You know that man that stands outside the Vatican Embassy every day with the sign?”

“Sure.  ‘Vatican Hides Pedophiles.’  I see him out there all the time.  Saw him on the Metro a few times too.  When I lived in Dupont Circle we used to get off at the same stop.”

“He’s got a new sign for the Pope’s visit.  It’s a big day for him.  You should check it out.”

“Sure.  Plenty has been written about him, but I’ll see what I can see.”
This was the conversation between my editor and me on Tuesday, the day of Pope Benedict’s arrival in Washington.  I left work and walked to Dupont Circle to take the bus past Embassy Row and to the Nunciature of the Holy See.  But Massachusetts Avenue had been spliced in half to assure maximum papal security and the bus crawled along slower than I could have walked.  I got out halfway up the hill and finished the journey on foot.

I made my way through a motley assembly.  The devout, dressed in black solemnity, fingering their Rosaries with the nervous excitement of a child at First Communion.  The indignant, banding together with signs and shouts: “The Pope is a Criminal.”  “Celibacy has failed!”  The indifferent, jogging up the hill with iPods and heartrate monitors, picking their spots through the crowd. All set against a paradox of a spring day, almost chilly and almost warm, windswept and sundrenched.For once, John Wojnowski was just a face in the crowd.  Now 65, he has been protesting at the corner of 34th Street and Massachusetts Avenue, near the Vatican Embassy, almost daily since 1997.  Slight, with white hair almost as thin as his glasses, he looks the part of the downtrodden.  On Tuesday he had two signs of protest: The older orange-black-and-white sign to which I had become accustomed, and a slicker, much bigger laminated banner in red, black, and white.  Wojnowski is not a fan of lowercase letters.

I introduced myself and he agreed to abandon his post.  “How much time do you have?’ he asked.  “I have a lot to say.”

“I’ll stay until we’re done.”

“I’m going to tell you a lot of unpleasant things. Just to help you understand why this is so important to me. Can some of it be off the record?”

Off the record?  A quick Internet search had revealed most of the sordid details anyone ever could have wanted to know about him.  How did all that get into cyberspace if he still valued his privacy and wanted to talk off the record?  
He propped his sign against his legs so it was still  somewhat visible to the crowds.  He asked me to sit down on the hill.  He looked up to the sky and said,  “I hope you are not Catholic.”

“It doesn’t matter.  Go ahead.”

“I cannot understand how somebody could ever be molested twice.  I was 15.”
A 30 minute conversation followed. Off the record.  
What he was willing to say on the record: “I had blocked it all.  I was miserable.  I felt like a fly on a fly strip.  I cried.  I moved all over the world, and finally moved back to Poland to find a wife.  I married the first girl I met.  Can you believe that?  But I was so insecure.  She was wonderful, so sweet.  But I was insecure.  I put her down to survive.  We are divorced.  I have two children.  I am sorry if I am not expressing myself well.  My English is not so good.”
He frequently apologized for no reason at all.  His English is good, though delivered with a lurching hesitancy.
“So what are you trying to achieve?”


“Money?  If they paid you enough, you would stop protesting?”


“What would you do with the money?”

“I would give it to my wife.  She deserves it.  You know, I only began to remember all this when I was 54, when some boys in Texas sued the Church.  I want them to apologize.  I want to know that I am not crazy.”
He was interrupted by a local news crew.  He was about to be interviewed for an 11 PM newscast.  He gave me a little bow as he was whisked away by a reporter who knew how to get a good clip in five minutes or less.  The camera shone in his face, making it appear even paler than usual.  Enough had been said.  He hopped back from his interview, apologizing over the delay.
“That’s okay, John.  I think I’ve got enough.  I’ll come and see you in a few days to show you what we’ve written.  Will you be here tomorrow or the next day?”
For the first time, John smiled.  “Yes.  Yes.  Oh, yes.”