• The Man Outside the Vatican Embassy

    Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See

    John Wojnowski at his post outside the Vatican Embassy, where he's stood for nearly a quarter of a century. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    John Wojnowski doesn't mind if you know his name.

     

    That wasn't always the case. Back when he started protesting in front of the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, colloquially known as the Vatican Embassy, in 1998, it was possible to be one man on a mission and remain relatively anonymous, possible that your friends and family in another state might never know the thing you were most ashamed of, the thing that was not your shame at all. These were the days before social media, before photographs on phones, before a single image could travel around the world before you knew it had been taken.

     

    But those were also the days before John was famous.

     

    John is a slight man, painfully shy in a way that is surprising, given his lack of inhibition about standing outside the Vatican Embassy with large signs that say he was the victim of clergy abuse, that it ruined his life. His voice is thick with his native Polish accent, despite his years living in Italy, Canada, and the United States. He is kind, warm, eager to talk, grateful for the attention, worried about offending my sensibilities. At nearly 80 years old, he's spent more than a quarter of his life on this mission, staked out on this patch of grass between the embassy's fence and the sidewalk, on this intersection of 34th & Massachusetts, across from the Vice President's mansion, surrounded by embassies, walking up and down with the flows of traffic. He might be mistaken for a panhandler, if he were asking for money. Instead, he just wants you to know what happened. He doesn't feel like he has a choice.

     

    "It's embarrassing that I'm out here," he said bashfully of his crusade when we spoke outside the Vatican Embassy, not quite meeting my gaze. "It's a shameful situation."

    Born in Poland in 1943, Wojnowski was raised in Italy where his father worked as a librarian for a Catholic university. It was there, as a teen, he says he was molested by a priest who offered him Latin lessons.

     

    Wojnowski's post-abuse spiral follows the familiar trajectory of many abuse victims; he was unable to complete school, moved first to Canada, where he was unable to find and keep steady employment. He moved to the U.S. and joined the Army. He didn't date. He was unable to keep friends. He married the first woman who smiled at him. "She gave me two beautiful children," he said with the benefit of years of understanding his journey, "but I know how much pain I caused her." They divorced after thirty years of marriage. They didn't talk for years; now, he says, they talk every day.

     

    "I wasted my life," he told me when we spoke outside the embassy, "I was so insecure."

    In the late 1990s, inspired by stories of abuse survivors who successfully sued the Catholic Church for abuse, he took his protest to the Vatican. "I was told it was my fault," he told me, "that I wanted the abuse. They said the statue of limitations was passed, and that my situation wasn't the same as other victims." His abuser had died, the Church denied his allegations, and he was left without recourse.

     

    So he began his protest.

    John Wojnowski holds a flyer that he distributes to passersby about his abuse.

    Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    Although the United States and the Holy See didn't formally establish diplomatic relations until January 1984, the Holy See has owned the property at the corner of 34th and Massachusetts since 1931, two years after the Lateran Treaty created the Vatican City State as a wholly sovereign entity, independent from Italy.

     

    The embassy itself, although it wasn't called that at the time, was designed by architect Frank Vernon Murphy, the chairman of the architecture department at Catholic University. It cost approximately $550,000 to build, more than $11.5 million in today's dollars, and is currently valued by the District at more than $18 million. Catholic dioceses across the country funded the build.

     

    It's an extravagant building, with a garden courtyard featuring a replica Pigna Fountain, one third of the size of that found in the Cortile della Pigna in the Vatican Museum in Rome. Elaborate stained glass panels throughout depict, among other scenes, the Divine Comedy's Paradiso; and portraits ranging from George Washington and Christopher Columbus to various popes and saints, hang on the building's walls.

     

    I had the chance to tour the building several years ago during a rare open house as part of the Unity Walk, an interfaith event organized by the various houses of worship on Massachusetts Avenue. From St. Sophia's to the grand mosque at the Islamic Center to the National Cathedral, we walked together. Billed as a "celebration of love and support for the diversity of faiths and cultures in our region," what I recall most was the warm welcome we received, the sense of hospitality, the sheer joy in sharing and learning from each other.

     

    At the Vatican embassy, the opening of the doors itself was the welcome and it seemed a reluctant one at that. My childhood in a Catholic family came flooding back, and the few priests that were present seemed more like security guards, ensuring the masses wouldn't touch or steal, waiting to whisk us away to confession, wanting to judge us for our real and imagined sins.

    John Wojnowski carries with him a copy of the Washington City Paper article, published in 1998, that he says used his name and photo without permission.

    Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    John never wanted to be famous.

     

    When he was first interviewed in 1998 by a Washington City Paper journalist, he tells me he asked her not to use his name or his photo. The paper used both. Reporters then called his family members, including his very religious mother, and his ex-wife, and that's how, he says, they first learned of the secret he had been hiding. In the years since, he's been profiled in The Washington Post, Washingtonian, BBC, Huffington Post and more. He has his own listing in the Library of Congress. Whenever there are large lawsuits, or settlements, or investigations into the Catholic Church, John, with his reliable location and his willingness to share his story, is an easy interview.

     

    (Note: I haven't been able to contact the journalist of the article, and the staff at Washington City Paper has gone through significant turnover in the past twenty years, so I could not independently verify his claim. But if true, publishing a sexual abuse victim's name and photo without their permission runs counter to standard journalism ethics.)

     

    Over the years, Wojnowski says, he's been accosted by passersby, one of whom grabbed his sign and drove off. He says that during a conference at the embassy, a large crowd of priests encircled and threatened him. He claims one priest spat on him.

    Still, he kept coming. Nearly every day for years, riding the Metro and the bus, waving his sign at drivers, even when they honked, and yelled, and cursed at him. He was there in 2002 when The Boston Globe exposed the breadth and depth of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests around the world, and again in 2015, when the Academy Award-winning film Spotlight about that investigation was released.

     

    It was in March 2015 that lawyers for the Vatican Embassy, citing security concerns, specifically due to protesters, requested permission to erect a fence. The initial request, for a fence "partially located in public space" was hotly contested by the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, which claimed the proposed fence was too close to the sidewalk, would endanger the trees in the proposed area, would impede upon pedestrian and other public space, and would negatively impact the overall "park-like setting of the avenue."

     

    The lawyers fired back, claiming, "The Embassy experiences regular protests and expects that they could increase in frequency and aggression. These protests coupled with legitimate threats that create a heightened need for security that previously did not exist." They claimed the fence on public land would prevent a "front lawn-like area" that would "invite protesters in."

     

    Ultimately, a compromise was made, the lawyers withdrew their request from the zoning board, and the Vatican embassy erected a fence on their own land, that left enough room for John to come and set up shop with his banners, and enough room for people to pass him by on the sidewalk, or stop to chat.

    The exterior of the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, colloquially known as the Vatican Embassy. Photo by Molly McCluskey.

    In the 24 years that John's been coming to protest the Catholic Church's cover-up of his sexual abuse, the sins of the Catholic Church are no longer secret. A range of abuses, including hundreds of deaths at Catholic-run orphanages and care homes, particularly among Indigenous people in the United States and Canada, have been exposed.

     

    Far from being a painful part of the past, there are active lawsuits, allegations, settlements and bankruptcies pending. Just last month, the archdiocese of New Mexico reached a $121 million settled to resolve a bankruptcy case stemming from more than 400 credible accusations of abuse against more than 74 priests from former children in their care. In the past few days, lawsuits have been filed against archdioceses in Portland, Maine; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Providence, Rhode Island; and Poughkeepsie, New York.

     

    John doesn't come every day any more but he still tries to get out there at least once a week, sometimes carpooling with another protester who shares his patch of grass, a woman who started protesting the Vice President's residence during the Cheney years. At his age, it's harder for him to get back and forth from his home in Maryland to the embassy; harder to stand out there, hour after hour, and get either waves or taunts.

     

    But he's not planning on stopping altogether.

     

    "I'll be here as long as it takes," he tells me. "I expect justice."

     

    If you've experienced clergy or other sexual abuse, please reach out for help. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) provides support for women and men wounded by religious and institutional authorities.

    One of the banners that accompanies John Wojnowski's protests.

    Photo by Molly McCluskey.