Archive for April 19th, 2010

John at the corner of 34th and Massachusetts Ave. (Photo: Reed)If you’ve ever driven by the Vice President’s official residence here in Washington, DC, then you might have seen this man.

His name is John Wojnowski and every day for the last 12 years he has been holding signs on the northeast corner of the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 34th Street in Northwest DC. I myself have seen him many times during the afternoon rush-hour, but last Wednesday I decided to stop and meet him.

He is a simple man; his entire outfit purchased from thrift stores. He stands about 5’7” and holds his sign for hours on end. For the next two hours, I listened intently to John as he shared his life story with me.

Born during wartime in Warsaw, Poland in 1943, his family moved to Milan, Italy in 1947 where he spent most of his childhood and attended Jesuit school. When he was 15, he says he was sexually molested by a Catholic priest.  He shares with me intimate details of the account. The traumatic event changed John’s life.

Before the molestation, he says that he was a happy 15-year-old. Even in pictures, he says there was a marked difference before and after the incident. He later moved to Canada and eventually ended up in Washington, DC in 1965.

Through all of this time, he says he had turned inward and shut out others. He shied away from girls and led an unhappy life. In 1968 he went back to Poland where he said he “married the first girl he met.”  He is now separated from his wife, but keeps in regular contact and says that they are good friends.  His children are grown and although it sounds like he doesn’t have a close relationship with them, he talks very proudly about them.  He says that he was not always the best husband and father due to the emotional stress he suffered over the years.

According to John, the molestation stifled his entire life.  He didn’t really even make the connection that his social and personal struggles were a result of the assault. It wasn’t until he learned in 1997 of a Catholic church pedophile scandal in Texas that he started to recover the memory of his tragic past. “After becoming aware of the damage, 39 years of misery, I wrote to the Vatican embassy. I was ignored. I made a sign with a big question mark and stood outside the nunciature.”

And so he started in 1998 to protest in front of the Vatican’s nunciature to the US, which is an ecclesiastical office of the Roman Catholic Church. Basically, it’s a diplomatic post of the Holy See, whose representative is called the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States and has a similar rank as ambassador. I always thought he protested there because it was across the street from the Vice President’s house, however, come to find out that he is actually standing directly in front of the nunciature.

Over the years, John has had many signs. Here are just a few of them:


Copy of the 1997 letter to the Archbishop

John shared with me so many different facets of his time in front of the nunciature. He gave me a copy of a letter he sent to the Archbishop of Washington, DC. He showed me a tired piece of paper detailing every interaction he has had with the apostolic nuncios (currently Pietro Sambi) over the years. Next to each interaction, he has written the time, date, and what happened. It was sad to see that many of the interactions ended in the nuncio calling John stupid or an imbecile.

So I asked John what it was that he wanted? I was surprised to hear that all he wanted was financial retribution. I tried to hide my disappointment. I’m sure that many other victims, surely thousands, see him as the voice for those who have been sexually abused by members of the church. I asked him, “If the Catholic Church gave you appropriate financial compensation, would you still come out here tomorrow with your signs?” His eyes widened. “No, that’s all I want.”

This got me thinking. Maybe he needs to take a new approach. Since it wasn’t clear to me what he wanted, maybe the Catholic Church isn’t aware either. I suggested he change his signs to reflect what he wants. His signs don’t foster an open environment where he and the Church could openly talk. Maybe you say that the Catholic Church would never offer a financial settlement, I don’t know. John claims that a few years ago a priest came out of the nunciature and told him that he had no case because of the statute of limitations.

John holds his banner during the afternoon rush-hour (Photo: Reed)

I don’t know what you think about this whole thing. I invite you to leave your comments. Do you think he is going about his crusade in the right manner? What would be the most effective way for him to get the financial reparation that he feels he deserves? If he continues with the signs, what would be the most effective message?

You might think John is crazy. You might think he is wasting his time. After spending two hours with him, I can tell you that he is extremely passionate about this. Many times he struggled for words. Sometimes it was because he didn’t know the right English word for things (his first language is Polish), however, many times language wasn’t the issue. His emotions were so strong that he simply couldn’t express his true feelings. I feared that he was taunted by many of the people who walk or drive by. The truth is that I didn’t see any of that. In fact, many cars would honk and give him the thumbs up and shout praises to him. I know that must help motivate him to travel the hour each way every day, taking two buses, and then enduring the elements for hours.

John has received numerous death threats, but that hasn’t stopped him.

“Do you think I should give up?” John asked softly.
“You are so passionate about this,” I said. “You need to follow your heart.”

His mouth tightened a little and his eyes sunk to the ground, his head nodding slowly. He stood in silence – no words were need. We both knew that he would never give up.

John will use the $10 to make copies of some of the materials he hands out to people who stop and speak with him.

You can read more about John on his website or visit him in person every day from around 4:30pm until dark at the corner of 34th and Massachusetts in Northwest DC.

UPDATE: April 23, 2010

I met with John on Wednesday and he asked me to post this quote from Winston Churchill.  (I have also seen this quote attributed to John F. Kennedy, not sure who originally said it) “A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.”

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