D.C. man protests Vatican inaction
By Sarah Parnass
That is the message of a 67-year-old man who stands outside the Nunciature of the Holy See — or the Vatican Embassy — near the Naval Observatory on Massachuesetts Avenue, nearly every day.
Whether in the rain under his stocky black umbrella or in the warm rays of the D.C. sun, John Wojnowski has stood on that street corner for the past 12 years. Each day after 4:30 p.m., he attaches one end of his white banner to a signpost and holds up the other end. Once unfurled, the banner’s red letters shout Wojnowski’s mantra, “VATICAN HIDES PEDOPHILES,” accompanied by the URL for his Web site, http://www.vaticanhidespedophiles.com.
Though Wojnowski appears soft-spoken in-person and claims extreme shyness once prevented him from ever speaking to women, his Web site presents a harsher picture.
“This impudent degeneracy [the Catholic Church], that has the gall to threaten, shame, ridicule and insult the long suffering crippled victims of its ignorance, MUST BE EXPOSED,” it reads.
Some might say his words are harsh, but the story he said is behind them could, perhaps, explain Wojnowski’s roughness.
It is a real human story, filled with many emotions and memories. It is Wojnowski’s story, as he told it.
In a small village in the mountains of Italy in 1958, the town’s pastor invited a 15-year-old boy to the church to work on his Latin studies.
Wojnowski described himself then as an impish boy with an intellectual curiosity that has followed him throughout his life.
The boy and his pious older brother went to the village church. When the priest saw that the boy had not come alone, Wojnowski said the priest separated the brothers, leaving the elder in a room with an assignment and taking Wojnowski into a private chamber.
In that room, the priest allegedly laid a hand on Wojnowski’s knee and convinced him to expose himself. Wojnowski said that the priest then sexually assaulted him.
“The reason I’m doing this is because I was molested myself,” Wojnowski said.
After that, Wojnowski said he only remembered finding himself on the ground in front of the church, stricken.
The abuse caused something to change inside him, both psychologically and physiologically, Wojnowski said. He became withdrawn and depressed, he said. Even his height was stunted by the trauma, Wojnowski said. Yet, for nearly 40 years, Wojnowski said he did not fully remember the event.
“I was so traumatized, so shocked that it was like literally being hit by lightning,” Wojnowski said. “Immediately, I blocked it out, repressed the memory.”
What Wojnowski said triggered his memory years later when he was living alone in the United States was news coverage of the scandal in the church that broke out in 1997.
In the world of psychology, it is still debated whether such phenomenon is possible. One study of college women by Michelle Epstien and Bette Bottoms of the University of Chicago and La Rabida Children’s Hospital found that victims of childhood sexual abuse forgot their incidents more completely than those who experienced other trauma. A study combining the work of academics from the State University of New York, Emory University and the University of California, however, purported that all “recovered memories” could be explained by flawed treatment programs and an individual’s inability to distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Yet Wojnowski was reluctant to focus on the recovery of his memory.
“You understand, we are fighting the [Catholic] Church,” Wojnowski said.
In August 1997, Wojnowski contacted a priest about the abuse he allegedly remembered. He said he was referred to counseling for which the church would pay, but he received no other reparations.
Wojnowski pursued the matter further, even writing to the Nunciature, he said. After his letters and phone calls were ignored, Wojnowski took up his post where he stood this Halloween, on the street corner in front of the Vatican Embassy.
Though his words are strong and his opinions divisive, Wojnowski has developed a following over the years. Originally, Wojnowski said passer-by met his message with shouts of “loser.” Now people honk or wave congenially as they drive by, showing their support for the man and his banner.
“It’s true,” Wojnowski said of his sign. “If it was not true it would be a lie, slander, defamation, libel. Right? And the Vatican would do something [legal] about it.”
Wojnowski alleges that rather than engage in a legal battle with him or acknowledge his accusations, the Vatican has sent young priests as agents in a scheme to force him off of his street corner. The first such confrontation occurred when a priest who did not reveal his name approached the protestor and gave him four reasons why he should give up his battle, according to Wojnowski.
“1. The molestation happened in Italy,” Wojnowski’s Web site reads. “In Italy, there is a statute of limitations so I was out of luck.
2. The molestation could have been my own fault.
3. To protest would be bad for me because I will be crushed by the ridicule and by the shame.
4. U.S. law is too harsh on pedophiles and should (or will) be changed.”
Wojnowski also said the Archbishop Sambi — the Papal ambassador to the United States — had personally insulted him in Italian. Wojnowski had videotaped the ambassador walking by, but the audio was unclear.
Sambi could not be reached to either refute or confirm Wojnowski’s accusations. Others at the Vatican Embassy refused to offer any information about Wojnowski, even so much as when he usually shows up each day.
AU Catholic Chaplain Father David Mott said he receives occasional inquiries about Wojnowski but never knew much about him until he looked online.
“[Wojnowski]’s not a big deal,” Mott said.
Mott also said he had recently received new information about Wojnowski.
“He’s paid,” Mott said with a smile, though he would not say by whom or where his information had come from.
Wojnowski predicted this reaction; he said the Vatican thinks he is being paid by the Jews.