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
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.
Vatican Official Allegedly Spits in Face of Protestor John Wojnowski
Escalating tensions between an embassy official and long-time protestor lead to a police inquiry.
By Ariel Sabar
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:
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.
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?
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…. More at:
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…. More at:
*****January 4, 2013
Sunday, January 6, brings us to the 11th anniversary of the breaking of the sexual abuse scandal in the United States in its Boston incarnation.
It’s the day the first news story ran in the series that would ultimately net the Boston Globe a Pulitzer Prize.
It is, as we have sadly learned and re-learned through this decade plus one, not the beginning of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. Those roots go very, very depth and strength very, very long into the Church’s history.
The movement of response to this crisis which ballooned considerably with the Boston explosion of news that rippled throughout the country and now throughout the world, has produced heroes and villains.
Many of the heroes and heroines are unsung. Many of the villains remain unknown.
John, who is a victim of sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest, has been outside of the Vatican Embassy to the United States, the Apostolic Nunciature, every day for 14 years. Here’s there today. He will be there tomorrow. No matter the weather. No matter the day. No mater the holiday. No matter the year.
John’s story is heartbreaking but his courage is fierce.
His life could have been so much different but he has taken the shattered pieces of it and built a place to stand for justice. He will not be silenced. He is a witness in his very flesh and bone for the vulnerable, the weak, and the innocent.
His lonely but determined and undaunted vigil recently was invaded by an ugly episode in this ugly scandal.
He took his grievance to the Secret Service agent posted across the street from the nunicature at the country’s residence for the Vice President.
The Secret Service and has opened an investigation.
First and foremost, we believe it must be said, no matter what the private opinions, thoughts and attitudes of a diplomatic aide are – and particularly one who is a priest – there is no justification for spitting – of all things – on a person with a sign who is outside the diplomatic building of the power that lays claims to moral leadership on the planet.
Let us remember that this diplomatic aide is representing a Church that preaches respect for life – cradle to grave.
We value our NSAC News readers. We believe in your endurance, your perseverance and your support for the survivors of sexual abuse by priests and nuns.
So, on this eve of another major anniversary in this long, long, long crisis, we ask you for action.
First, let John know he is not alone. You can read about him and what propels his longstanding solo vigilance outside the embassy and reach him through the Minnesota SNAP page set up to receive comments for him. Here’s the link. http://mnsnap.wordpress.com/john-wojnowski/
Second, make your stand known to his boss, the nuncio. The Pope appointed this man to represent the Roman Catholic Church within the temporal order of business among countries. This man is the Church’s representative to the United States. He is not a passing stranger. He’s a man whose been given a position of trust and influence. He holds considerable sway over who is appointed a bishop in this country and how the affairs of the Church are conducted here. He’s a conduit between this country and the Vatican.
As an American or refugee or asylee seeking to become an American citizen, let him know what you think about the conduct of his diplomatic aide and his conduct as a nuncio in not publicly responding to it.
Here’s his contact information:Archbishop Carlo Mario Vigano Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See 3339 Massachusetts Avenue, NW Washington D.C. 20008 United States Phone: 202-333-7121 Fax 202-337-4036 Email: email@example.com (if you reach a rejection on this email address, call and ask for the workable one).
Third, make this a local issue. Take it up with the Victim Assistance Co-ordinator in your diocese.
Not in a meek, “thought you might be interested in this” email with a link.
No, with a real intent to find out if the Victim Assistance Coordinator in your diocese, believes that it’s okay for a Vatican diplomatic aide to behave in this manner while the Church touts that it’s leading the way in handling sexual abuse in this country.
Don’t take a lukewarm brush-off response that Victim Assistance Co-ordinators are not involved in this matter.
Of course, they are.
The Vatican’s global attitude is the role model and the gold standard for how the issue is handled locally.
So think globally, live locally doesn’t just apply to food – it’s imminently applicable in the situation of a universal church.
Here’s the link to locate your diocese’s Victim Assistance Co-ordinator: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/child-and-youth-protection/victim-assistance-coordinators.cfm
For too long the Church has succeeded in this battle by a divide and conquer approach that runs many gamuts and gauntlets.
One of the tactical divide and conquer approaches is the dealing in one media market when an abuser is charged, named, sued, removed or laicized when the diocese or archdiocese’s territory spans a number of markets. Only in the largest of the dioceses does the media market reach all of the members of the archdiocese.
That also aids and abets the news about what happened on the nuncio’s lawn: it’s a Washington story. Not on your life. It’s a world story. This is a universal Church.
One of the most often used divide and conquer tactics is the way dioceses cocoon themselves when they want the outside world to go away and open themselves up in full butterfly fashion when they want to: Catholic universally some days, and other days, — such as in the criminally convicted Bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri situation – not so much.
We know the continuing crisis carries a weariness.
We know as the calendar turns once again there is a weight to it.
We know it is difficult to read the continuing flow of stories in NSAC News Monday through Friday and those chronicled everyday on the Abuse Tracker. We know that a depression can set in with the constant drip of this coverage.
But we also know that John Wojnowski, his vigil – and his face upon which the spittle of a priest ran — calls us to more.
If the Vatican Ambassador and your diocese’s Victim’s Assistance Coordinator tell you that the scandal is history, the Church is leading in the reform, and everything would be hunky dory if victims and their advocates would just shut up and sit down please ask them if they read NSAC News and/or the Abuse Tracker?
When you find out they don’t, let them know how to subscribe to NSAC News and find the Abuse Tracker so they can better converse with you on the topic.
Let them know they can’t have a real conversation with you until you know you are talking with people who have knowledge – broad and open minded knowledge, — not edited knowledge that serves to protect the diocese and re-victimize survivors and their families and the families of those who committed suicide. Victim Assistance Co-ordinators should search everywhere for the truth.
In tribute to John Wojnowski, we begin this new year with the words of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and we challenge our readers with them:
“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.” -Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956
Welcome to 2013.
The day, the hour, the year is upon us. Let us seize the days for they will not come again.
— Kristine Ward, Chair, National Survivor Advocates Coalition, NSAC Kristineward@hotmail.com
Continue to send your support to John.
All support comments you want him to receive with be posted here.
Ashleigh84 Hang tough John
myyellowbike Thanks for this blog, I live in Bloomington, No, none of this has directly effected me, I was in a Parish once in another state where the Priest had to be pulled
lck God bless you, John! You are strong and an inspiration to all. Did you ever think you would suffer persecution from your own church?
dorothy John, my heart goes out to you. It is a most difficult thing you do, it is a true testimony to your courage.
Kate Barber John, thank you for your constant witness and dedication. Your courage is contagious. For the past few months, I’ve told my lawyer of my plans to do something like what you are doing, on a daily basis like you. He tells me I do not want to do this. I tell him I have to do this. You paved the way, John, and provided a model that shows it can be done. I’m outraged that it’s necessary, but it is….Thank you.
voicelessvictim John, Your courage and determination are an example and inspiration to victims and survivors around the world. You have our sincere support and thanks from Australia.
David Lorenz John is not only one of the most courageous people around but he has been ahead of everyone when it comes to this issue. I’m sorry to use a Church term to describe him him but it surely fits – he is a prophet.
Patrick Leddy John, keep up the good fight. God Bless you and happy New Year….Patrick Leddy
Ronald Modras John, your story and example of perseverance deserve to be broadcast throughout the nation and throughout the church. I hope that those who read your story will forward it on to their friends, who will then forward it on to their friends, Lilke the pebble that is thrown into a stil pond, may your faithful witness produce ripples that go far beyond what you can see. Thank you and God bless you. Dziekuje i Bog zaplac.
Vic Tyne I admire your courage and decency. The hierarchy is sorely lacking in both….Victor Tyne
Bonnie Lee Wimmer My heart aches for you. I have a son, now 53, who cannot give up fighting against the church’s coverup. He works with SNAP. Now that he has a 12 year old son he is more in agony than ever because that was his age when it all started. You will be in my prayers as you continue to educate those who do not believe this has ever happened.
Cecilia Springer I admire John’s tenacity, i do wish he would seek a legal route, but everybody has to do what he/she feels is best
Dayan Noonan Norimbah Greetings John ,….Blessings from SNAP Central Coast New South Wales ,Down Under …..There are no words in any language that can articulate the pure Evilness of the Roman Catholic Church ….We have symbols of Hope ,Faith an Peace however without Heart are meaningless ,without breath unsustainable ….We salute the shinning example you are . We celebrate your gentleness and are greatfull that you have chosen to share your story .we send to you blankets of love to wrap yourself in an the knowledge that for everyone person who comes behind you ,like us ,the journey has been made lighter ,our future much more brighter because a gentle Heart like yours shines 24/7 . Can be seen day an night from anywhere under the Milky Way .
Paxalb thanks for sending this…..my heart aches for this victim
Diane D. He is a Saint in my book-non-violent resistance at its best!
Wayne Domino …John, the belief I once held in the catholic religion was shattered the years I worked for the church…..I found the majority of priests to be liars, cheaters and arrogant. I fought so hard to do what I could to be a clean servant only to be trampled on over and over again. I believe in God the Father, His Divine Son Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and the Blessed Mother… but as for the catholic church…no.
Toni M Thank you John, for your dedicated campaign on behalf of Survivors everywhere……..I have had the honor of seeing you out there at your post, when I lived in the DC area…..My son is a survivor of sexual abuse by priest Aaron J. Cote, who worked in the Archdiocese of Washington DC. As we were going through that horrific nightmare, during he years 2001-2009, through to the pursuit of Cote’s criminal felony child abuse conviction, I saw you out there. I Thank you-
jane mazzola Thank you sir, for such heroic stand…even before it became more widely known in the USA & elsewhere of the RCC. You may never realize justice in this life, but you stand w/the prophets of OT time, John the Baptist, & Jesus, Himself, of bringing wrong-doing into the light of day…. Blessings, J. Mazzola, VA
David O’Regan John your name should appear in the dictionary next to COURAGE! You are symbol of courage standing up daily to expose the TRUTH and help make this world SAFER FOR CHILDREN. Your courage inspires me. Thank You from the bottom of my heart.
Paula Ruddy John, and you too, Bob. Thanks for the perseverence you have in standing against clerical abuse of children. Is it naive to ask if you could talk with Carlo Maria Vigano and enlist his help in having the US Conference of Catholic Bishops organize an effective public confession for themselves and public asking of forgiveness from victims? They could ask you, Bob, and SNAP what they can do to atone. Paula Ruddy, Minneapolis
Dana Borkowski I agree with TINA’S reply, Winona Minnesota Chapter of VOTF, have made a decision to make a donation to SNAP. My personal portion will be in honor of this remarkable, devoted man who carries a message daily for me and for all the world to see… Respectfully, Dana Borkowski
Miguel Prats Thank you John for your dedication and fortitude. As a survivor still in the Church I know your banner calling some Catholics cowards is, sadly, very true. May God bless you with strength to carry on in the new year….The light of truth will eventually prevail.
Melanie Jula Sakoda All we have is our own truth, and our own voice. Thanks for using yours so well, John.
Robert Costello Dear John You have been a solider of the truth for me for many years. I lived in DC for years and would beep my horn and wave to you every day as I drove down Mass Ave on my way to work. I even stopped one time to thank you for your courage and determination. I have lived here back in Boston for some 12 years but I have never forgot about you and your actions. Thank you for all you do!!!
Annette Nestler Thank you, John. You are a true inspiration to victims/survivors and their families. WALK TALL, JOHN!
Steven Spaner John you make me proud on the one hand, knowing there are still people of moral conviction and dedication to justice for the victims. On the other hand I am embarrassed and humbled because I am not on the line with you every day. Thank you for representing my best intentions and forgive me for failing to live my best intentions…. You are hero for all humanity.
clergyvictim James F Moran said, on December 30, 2012…………………..
Kay Goodnow said, on December 30, 2012…………..
Steve Theisen What a brave person. Certainly much more brave than those in the RCC.
David Damiani John, after being brought up in a devote catholic household, I always believed and was it ingrained in me that the catholic church would be at a higher standard and do the right thing. The recent events in my life has utterly shattered my life long core beliefs of the catholic organized religious institution. John, I am in awe of your of your relentless conviction.You are a true inspiration for other survivors as your self. Your strength gives me strength.
For every person who tramples your banner, swerves their car at you, spits at you there are ten sexual abuse survivors out there that would give you a tight reassuring embrace! John keep doing what your doing! I simply thrive on your perseverance and strength! Thank you John! David Damiani
Joe McMorrow I have had the honor of witnessing this man in action. It was at a time prior to knowing of my son’s abuse by a priest in the Washington Archdiocese. I get him. How is it that men who are supposedly called by Christ to tend his flock have essentially ignored an innocent soul who has made an almost daily pilgrimage to the steps of their US embassy all these years?
Anne Harter Would that more of us had the conviction and courage to stand up to injustice. This world will not change without you/us. Positive energies of peace, joy and justice to you John. Anne Harter
Mary Heins Thank you, John, for your unflinching and ongoing witness to this evil in the Catholic Church. The Church (and the world, too) would rather not talk about it any more. But I know the problem is not solved, those responsible have not been held accountable, nor have most victims been compensated. Rather you have often been disrespected and pushed into the shadows in the hopes of this scandal being unseen and forgotten by all the world. So I see you standing there, not letting it be forgotten. You are a very brave man and are keeping this issue in front of the eyes of those who do not admit or deal with it. You are part of that larger group of brave, persistent people determined to expose child sex abuse and to hold the Catholic Church (and others) accountable. This is a world-changing mission, John! Keep it up.
Daniel Nash Dear John, I have been doing this too. It is very hard to take all the unjust hatred. I have had to stop for fear of more blow-back against my wife and son. I still protest in front of the church, but I’ve learned not to put bumper stickers on my wife’s car. Some “good” catholic put something in the gas tank after breaking off the antenna to wedge open the gas cover, and let the air out of the tires. This MO happened twice, and I had to scrap both cars. The police have been very unhelpful, when it came to reporting assaults on my wife and myself. Keep up the fight. I don’t feel as alone, after reading your brave story. Love, Daniel
tina Bob thanks so much for sending me this,, i love this man John.. every day i think of him out at the embassy and i smile..
MN-SNAP John I hold the utmost respect for you. I am honored you gave me the opportunity to establish this tribute page on this blog. Bob Schwiderski