Protesting the pope

If you’ve ever been to Washington, DC, and have driven up Massachusetts Avenue to get a glimpse at the impressive embassy Protesting buildings that line that street, you may have seen a protestor standing in front of the Vatican embassy with a sign condemning the Pope and the abuse of children by Catholic priests. I remember first noticing this man and his banners while checking out colleges in DC when I was in high school. When I moved here a few years ago, he was still there, and I’d pass him during my runs up the hill. Now, the Washingtonian magazine profiles him:

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.

The exhaustive profile explores Wojnoski’s claims of abuse at the hands of a now deceased Italian priest, as well as the response of the Archdiocese of Washington, which has offered free counseling and has attempted to put him in contact with the Italian diocese that is responsible for any legal action.

Archbishop William Lori, the newly appointed archbishop of Baltimore and the public face of the bishops’s religious liberty campaign, was once a central actor in this saga, and perhaps was the impetus of the sign campaign:

Faced with more silence, Wojnowski photographed a question mark at the end of one of his letters to Lori, enlarged it to a height of four feet and traced its outline on a plank of plywood. At the top of the plank, he wrote, “Bishop Lori, do you recognize this question mark?”

He drove into DC and stood with it on the sidewalk outside the nunciature: It was his first sign.

Within days, he says, Lori replied to his letters. “He wrote, ‘Unfortunately, that priest who allegedly molested you died. But I will pray for you and the church will pay for your therapy.’ ” (When I asked to see the letter, Wojnowski searched for it but couldn’t find it. The Archdiocese of Washington declined to release the letter but confirmed its broad outlines.)

Thus began Wojnowski’s 14-year odyssey on the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 34th Street. He took early retirement from the ironworkers’ union—he was 55—and gave himself over to the next phase of his life.

“After I received that letter from the bishop,” he says, “I had no choice.

The article suggests that Wojnowski may suffer from paranoia; he trusts no strangers and believes those who try to help him are agents of the Church. Because he has refused to pursue legal challenges against the diocese in Italy where the priest he accuses worked, Wojnowski has not received financial compensation or an official apology. It seems that the Archdiocese of Washington, and some priests within it, have attempted to help, but that the wounds may be too deep to accept.

The full article is worth a read (you’ll have to register for a free account).

Michael J. O’Loughlin

Photo: courtesy Washingtonian magazine.

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Vince Killoran
6 years 6 months ago
I think we need to do this a lot more-even stopping a priest after Mass while he's soaking in the adulation of the congregation and delivering  a little criticsm where it's due. Some of the clergy are isolated from the views of lay Catholics.

BTW, I tried this last year and the parish pastor was enraged with me!
Thomas Farrell
6 years 6 months ago
Thanks for calling attention to this detailed article about John Wojnowski. I was already familiar with his story and his banners. But I appreciated the additional details that the article provides about his life.

I can understand the rage that he feels about what happened to him, and I can also understand how he might find it satisfying to express his rage in the way he is expressing it through his vigils with his banners. However, I hope for his sake that he is able to work through his rage eventually and that it lifts. If and when his rage lifts, he will probably find that healing.
Brendan McGrath
6 years 6 months ago
Vince - Wow; what exactly did you say to him that enraged him so much?
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 6 months ago
Re: stopping the priest after Mass ...

Recently at a daily noon Mass at the local chancery the young priest said that this was a day where we were supposed to be especially mindful of the decision that made abortion legal. Just as the tabernacle held the Eucharist, Mary’s womb had carried Christ. He went on to elaborate about the sanctity of life from conception until natural death, and how we must be mindful of the wrongness of euthanasia, murder, suicide, and stand on the side of life.

But he never mentioned the death penalty.

Even the U.S. bishops know that the death penalty is a pro-life issue, why would this priest glaringly omit to include it? How can you teach the sanctity of life while condoning state-spondored murder?

I knew that I had to speak up. After Mass I caught the young priest and said, “I wish that you could have included the death penalty in your list of pro-life issues.” He was defensive, and responded with “the death penalty is not included as an article of faith in the Catholic Catechism”. I wondered aloud if abortion was included as an article of faith, and he looked as if he were aghast at what I was asking so I backed off, and simply reminded him that the U.S. Bishops had stated that respect for life called for an end to the death penalty, and I was disappointed that he had not mentioned it. He then totally blew me off and turned away with a strange “it’s ok” and smile. (what’s ok?)
Vince Killoran
6 years 6 months ago

His homily was a homage to the free market so I reminded him of Catholic social thinking on labor's rights and defense of unions.  I recevied a frozen smile and a citation from Canon Law about his authority as pastor (presumably he was asserting a kind of "homily infallibilty"). 

Marie Rehbein
6 years 6 months ago
I get the message that his protest is not about himself.  It is about the institution's privileged status and its lack of accountability in case after case after case.  There can be no end to this man's protest.
david power
6 years 6 months ago
14 years is a long long time.This man reminds us of the splendour of the truth.
God love him and may his efforts not be in vain.
But I think those he is addresing are indifferent and the Bishops etc are beyond repentance.
I hope that some future Pope will make the Catholic  Holocaust a central part of our memory.
If we fail to learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.
Tim O'Leary
6 years 6 months ago
This is a tragic story, on many levels. Mr. Wojnowski’s website (thanks Jim #2 for providing the link) is full of hate for all Catholic clergy, calling Bishops ugly, vulgar “degenerate parasites”, references to Al Capone, Mr. Ratzinger, kissing rings, etc. -  the stuff of many anti-Catholic bigots. An accusation can be false in several ways – it may not have happened at all, it may have happened differently than claimed, it may have had different consequences than claimed, or the wrong person or people may be accused of doing the deed, or contributing to the deed, when it was done by someone else. But the current accusation by the poor paranoid Mr. Wojnowski is certainly false, in that he is falsely accusing the wrong people, by any reasonable measure. And he is blatantly trying to extort money, and lots of it (per the Washingtonian article).
He may indeed have been unchastely touched back in 1958 in the little Italian village (his brother is a reliable witness that something wrong was done, in my opinion), but for him to focus his hate on Bishops in America or in the Vatican or the pope today for this single event in a small Italian village 54 years ago, and not on the actual perpetrator is a great injustice. He freely admits that for the right amount of money he will stop protesting. Any kind of money (i.e. a payoff) would seem highly unjust:  1) the alleged perp (for 40 years) is dead, there is no claim or evidence that clergy or local officials or police or whoever in Italy knew of this event, and 3) any money that would go to him would have to come from the collection box instead of the poor.

May God give him peace.
Thomas Rooney OFS
6 years 6 months ago
So much anger, so much intense pain in this man.

I disagree completely with the notion Mr. Wojnowski is seeking large sums of money; he apparently hasn't any current legal representation, rebuffs the meager communications attempted by Church officials (real or imagined, i.e. 'Catholic celebrities'), and has been protesting for over a decade.  If he's looking for cash, he hasn't a clue how to go about it; the man doesn't strike me as stupid.  He's angry to the point of being enraged, but he's not stupid.

To me, Mr. Wojkowski's protest represents Church anger at the scandal in microcosm; he will not go away.  He will not be silenced.  He will not "tone it down".  He is horridly sad at what has been taken from him.  He is angry to the point of being irrational and feels he has no other recourse but to scream it out his pain.  He feels betrayed at the deepest level.  He wants a healing he cannot name and at this point absolutely will not claim.

I echo Tim's prayer for Mr. Wojnowski's peace.
Thomas Farrell
6 years 6 months ago
Thomas Rooney OFS @12: In the paragraph that begins "To me," you have described in detail what I referred to as rage in my message @4. I would even go so far as to agree with your statement that John Wojnowski "wants a healing that he cannot name."

When people get to the late stage of rage in the process of mourning nondeath loss, I suspect that most of them want a healing that they cannot name.

But I find your next statement very puzzling, to say the least.

You say that "at this point [John Wojnowski] absolutely will not claim
I would say that he must work through his rage before he will be able to move to the next stage in the process of mourning nondeath loss, which would involve the lifting of the rage stage (roughly equivalent to healing, to use your term).
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 6 months ago
I also find a kind of artistic(?) expression in Mr. Wojnowskit's protest.  Not unlike the monk who slowly walks down a crowded street ringing a bell.
Thomas Farrell
6 years 6 months ago
beth cioffoletti @14: After I recently read the article about John Wojnowski's experience and his vigil and his banners, I sent him an email message and something I had written about something I myself had experienced. He sent me an email message thanking me.

From my own analysis of certain events in my life in recent years, I concluded that I had not learned to mourn in a healthy way when I was a child.

My guess is that John Wojnowski did not learn how to mourn in a healthy way when he was a child. For this reason, it is today hard for him to complete the late rage stage of the process of mourning nondeath loss.

@15: Psychotherapists like to repeat two mantras for us to follow: (1) feeling the feelings and (2) work through the feelings.

I have no doubt that John Wojnowski has been feeling the feelings of rage and outrage.

By making his banners and carrying on his vigil in front of the Vatican embassy, he is working through his feelings of rage and outrage in ways that are socially acceptable and non-violent.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
Beth, I think you hit on something when you mention this man may hit a common nerve. Thomas Farell, Maybe John W is more on point than the rest of us who allow evil to continue. Yes he needs to get a grip on his rage. On the other hand he has a grip on something that too many lack. Out of the depths of his ("Out of the depths I cry to you O lord") wound he cries out for justice and don't we identify in some ways. What I am enraged about is we are fed the words of Jesus, Francis, Ignatius and then we are made to be ashamed of those words as we are the troubled ones rather than the leadership which has defined mediocrity as Christianity and empire as its mantel
ed gleason
6 years 6 months ago
So there are calls  now  [7-13 ] for taking down the Joe Paterno statue at Penn State, already his name is painted over at the Nike Child center.... but JPII is still on saint hood track!!!! And cover up Bishops shrug!! The media fear of looking anti-Catholic is just as big as the fear of looking anti-Semitic and the Fortnight  march for Religious Liberty was a farce. 
Tim O'Leary
6 years 6 months ago
Ed #18
You always seem to learn the wrong lessons from these events. The Penn State (a public school) case shows the weakness of institutions in policing their own, in discerning objectively the wrongs of their own (or their allies) compared with those of their opponents. There is a natural tendency to defend one's allies and exaggerate (and even invent) the sins of one's opponents. To accuse the saintly Pope is the equivalent of implicating President Obama in the public school sex abuse infractions (way more common than in the Catholic institutions, by any study that has looked into it, and with several events in the LA and NY systems recently). This is where John Wojnowski's method results in a false accusation. It is self-serving judgmentalism, like the Pharisees who wanted to throw the stone at the adulterous woman, before Jesus reminded them of their own sins.

Like you, many of the posts above (esp. Marie #9) do not seem to care if Wojnowski is on target, as long as you can use the charge as an anti-Catholic weapon against the Church. The California Teacher's Union fight to prevent removal of abusing teachers, even when there is photographic proof (see LA story on Mark Berndt and SB1530 - and not a mention in the groups like SNAP supposedly only concerned for the ''safety of the children''. Where is the website?

Another example: when liberal writer Emily Yoffe accuses the pro-choice hero-of-the-Catholic-dissident Jesuit Fr. Drinan of ''molesting'' her (see ''My Molesters'' in Slate June 21 story), it gets minimal mention in the liberal media (only Wash Post, not NYT, LAT, Boston Globe, etc) and none in Jesuit America, whereas this would be a huge story if a prominent conservative was accused.
Jeanne Linconnue
6 years 6 months ago
Tim, it is fact that John Paul II protected Maciel even though Rome knew of charges against him for decades. He ordered Cardinal Ratzinger to stop the investigation. John Paul II also did nothing about the sex abuse scandal in the US except for reward certain clerics. For example, Law was moved to Rome (away from the US judicial system), and given one of the most prestigious cathedrals in Rome and several important committee memberships, including sitting on the one that recommended new bishops. He was "honored" for his loyalty to the institution - no matter that his protection of pedophiles led to the molestation of hundreds of victims who might have been spared.  Several other Boston bishops who knew of the cover-ups of sexual molestation of the young, were rewarded for their loyalty by being promoted to head their own dioceses.  John Paul II refused to ever meet with a single victim and the only words of comfort he ever offered were to clerics. If you call rewarding bishops who protected pedophiles "saintly" behaviour, I hate to imagine who else might be "saintly" in your eyes. 
Tim O'Leary
6 years 6 months ago
You are full of accusations against this holy man, imputing motives you cannot possibly know. Matthew 7:3 comes to mind (re the log in your own eye). We will have to see if the Lord grants miracles to those who ask for Wojtyla's intercession.
Bill Mazzella
6 years 6 months ago
It is clear that he suffered profoundly. Hi brother corroborated his story.  May God  give him peace. 
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 6 months ago
I find the above 3 comments interesting because as I was reading about this man's protest I thought: I, too, have a woundedness in me that I cannot name.  A deep longing for healing.

I cannot claim to any specific childhood trauma, and I have no one to "blame", but I found myself wondering if what Mr. Wojnowski experienced in childhood exaggerrated (and focused) a woundedness that is common to all of humanity.


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