If you’ve ever been to Washington, DC, and have driven up Massachusetts Avenue to get a glimpse at the impressive embassy 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.