'People believe me now’ — A Catholic Church sexual abuse protest that has lasted 20 years

(AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino, File) In this Sunday, April 22, 2018 photo, priests pray during a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican.

There’s a honk. And then a thumbs up.

A wave, another thumbs up. A flash-flash of headlights. Honk! Honk!

“This is a good day,” declared protester John Wojnowski, who has been a fixture outside the Vatican’s U.S. Embassy in Washington for more than two decades.

When he began trying to tell the world about sex abuse in the Catholic Church — and about what he says a priest did to him when he was 15 — there were a lot of bad days. There was silence. And stares.

“And they give me the finger,” said Wojnowski, who is now 75. And many years ago in his 20-year pilgrimage toward redemption, someone walked out of the Holy See’s diplomatic outpost on Massachusetts Avenue and spit in Wojnowski’s face, he said.

Since 1997, Wojnowksi has stood outside the Apostolic Nunciature during rush hour explaining his lifetime of pain, depression, anger in a series of giant signs:




He flips and turns the signs for hours so they face incoming and outgoing traffic, delivering his message to the thousands of motorists, joggers and cyclists streaming past. He stares people down to make eye contact. To read the sign. To know his story. He demands they know.

“How many people look away,” he said to the drivers of oncoming cars who looked away, “from the ignorance, the stupidity, the malevolence of the Catholic Church?”

There are plenty of people like him around Washington — the seemingly lost-cause protesters — though few have his stamina. He lives in Maryland and takes a train, metro and bus to his post, a three-hour journey, almost every day. In the sun, the rain and the cold.

This week, after a trip to Florida and some time off to help his blood pressure settle, Wojnowski returned to his protest for the first time since the Catholic sex abuse scandal ripped through Washington, since Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned amid abuse allegations, since a list of credibly accused priests was released, since Pope Francis accepted the resignation of Washington’s archbishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, over the spreading scandal. This week D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine opened an investigation into alleged sex abuse by priests in the nation’s capital.

Now the reaction he gets is a bit different.

“Yes, I think people believe me now,” he said, after a series of red-light honks.

It’s a busy day on his block. There’s a reception at the Vatican Embassy, so officials are pouring into the semicircle drive, handing their cars to the valet attendants who all know the protester.

Wojnowski gets excited when he sees the flash of a violet zucchetto — the purple skullcap worn by a bishop — through a car window and raises his giant sign like a barbell and waves it back and forth with uncanny strength and control.

“My right arm is now bigger than my left arm,” he explains. The bishop turns away without making eye contact.

By the height of rush hour, the traffic was a chorus of honks and waves. Smiles and right-ons. A man with a cross glued to his dashboard waved. A man driving by in a blue pickup truck gave him a crisp salute.

All those years on that corner, before three apologies from three popes, before the Holy See admitted there was a problem, before The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the way the church protected abusers, before “Spotlight” won an Oscar recounting the Globe’s investigation.

“I saw him all those years ago and thought it was a bit odd,” said Hanna Wagner, a longtime D.C. resident who greeted Wojnowski on her way to an event at the Finnish Embassy next door. “And, yes, now, we all know what happened. He knew what he was talking about.”

Does he feel vindicated at last?

When you ask Wojnowski, he begins to stutter a bit. And his eyes tear up.

“I lost everything. It ruined my life,” he said. He was born into a Polish family of scholars but never made it through school. He was an ironworker, served in the U.S. military, raised a family in Maryland that was haunted by his demons.

“I ruined my wife,” he said. “She was such a gentle, kind woman. And I was just a cripple.”

Vatican officials said they investigated his allegation that a priest in a small village in Italy, where his family emigrated from Poland, abused him when he was a teenager. That priest is now dead. And they offered Wojnowski counseling.

“I don’t want it,” he said.

“They also came out here one year to give me an Italian cake. A panettone. I didn’t take that,” he said.

What does he want? He wants the impossible.

He wants his life back. He wants the lost years back, the potential, the smile he had when he was a little boy in a suit and a sash in a small village in Italy, before his black-and-white family pictures changed to show a sullen, vacant-eyed teenager.

And because the church will never be able to give him what he wants, he will not stop.

“I do this for myself,” he slowly explains, between struggles to hold back more tears. His knees, his cataract, his aching bones won’t stop him.

What that abuse stole from him can never be replaced. And he wants the world to know.