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Standing alone in front of the Vatican Embassy at 34th Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, John Wojnowski looks like any Washington sightseer fresh from the tour bus. On this weekday afternoon, he’s suited up in standard vacation uniform: Nike flip-flops on his feet, a baseball cap on his head, and a durable backpack on his shoulders. His ruddy skin tone and bright blond hair testify to hours spent in the sun.
@Text-Justified:But Wojnowski’s no weekend tourist en route to the National Cathedral or Smithsonian; he clocks approximately 20 hours a week on this particular patch of Embassy Row. And like a professor, Wojnowski holds regular office hours—weekday mornings from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., evenings from 5 to 7 p.m.
“It’s a beautiful location,” he says about his prime sidewalk real estate across the street from the U.S. Naval Observatory, home to Vice President Al Gore. “Nice people…I see the vice president every day, once or twice a day.”
No doubt the vice president takes note of Wojnowski as well. Though his outfits are strictly off-the-rack, Wojnowski accessorizes by holding a knockout 4-by-3-foot poster that states: “MY LIFE WAS RUINED BY A CATHOLIC PEDOPHILE PRIEST.” And just in case the sign doesn’t provide enough sensory stimulation, he incessantly clangs a tinny bell like a befuddled Salvation Army Santa.
Since December 1997, Wojnowski has been an odd lawn ornament for this particularly international slice of the District. One of Washington’s grand thoroughfares, Massachusetts Avenue is lined with embassies representing European and Asian powerhouses. Wojnowski acts as the neighborhood’s plastic pink flamingo: an out-of-place yet strangely comforting presence amidst the stuffiness of mansions and diplomats.
@Justified Drop:From his sidewalk pulpit in front of the Vatican Embassy, Wojnowski pans his sign, waves to commuters, and buttonholes any pedestrian who happens to cross his path. No one seems too disturbed by the severity of his accusation. Drivers honk, wave, and even give an arms-up victory sign to him as they pass.
@Text-Justified:”The place wouldn’t be the same without him,” says John Pepino, a teacher at the Maret School, who passes Wojnowski regularly on his commute.
Wojnowski also earns some fans with his solo percussion-based rendition of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow,” which he repeats throughout the afternoon. Security guards at the U.S. Naval Observatory wish Wojnowski would mix up his playlist a bit. “[A]part from the fact that that bell drives them crazy, they don’t really have much trouble from him,” says Geoff Chester, public affairs officer at the observatory.
Given the recent publicity about incidents of sexual abuse within the Catholic priesthood, Wojnowski’s story seems almost as predictable as his choice in music. He claims that he was sexually abused by a priest as a youngster in Italy. “A priest found out I had a problem with Latin, and he invited me to the rectory of his church to give me Latin lessons,” he recalls. “There was no tutoring whatsoever. I sat down, he put his hand on my knee…” He remains sketchy on the rest of the details, failing to recall the name of his attacker and refusing to give the exact location where the assault occurred.
As a way of explaining the incident’s impact on his life, Wojnowski reaches into the breast pocket of his red-checkered shirt and pulls out black-and-white photographs of various family configurations. “See, I was always laughing,” he notes, pointing to a grinning young boy with curly locks. He then flips to a snapshot of himself as a teenager, looking frightened and withdrawn behind big, heavy glasses. The photo was taken when he was 16, he says, one year after the encounter with the priest.
Wojnowski flunked out of school and left Italy when he was 18. He emigrated first to Canada, where he worked odd jobs. He headed south to Washington in 1963, served in the Army for a few years, and then worked in construction. He saved up enough money to travel to the place of his birth, Poland, where he met and married a Polish woman in 1968. She followed him to Washington. They have two children.
Wojnowski says his wife left him a few years ago, about the same time that local work in construction nose-dived. And even though the industry is now booming, Wojnowski thinks he hasn’t worked in two or three years. He says his inability to hold down a job is just one of the many consequences of his alleged victimization many years ago. “My father had two doctor degrees,” he explains, “and I was a laborer all my life.” Now he clings to his part-time, no-pay gig on Massachusetts Avenue for all he’s worth.
Wojnowski’s recollection of molestation was sparked last year, after he read newspaper articles about victims of priest pedophiles who had received monetary reparations from the Catholic church. The reports stirred his memory, as well as his financial planning. “[I] could get used to $20,000, I was thinking,” says Wojnowksi. And the promise of an inflated checkbook has ballooned his ambitions as well. “I would like to travel to Nepal,” he later adds. “And trek on the Himalayas. To have a picture of me with some big mountains in the background.”
After Wojnowski filed a claim with the Archdiocese of Washington in August 1997, Bishop William Lori conducted an investigation and informed him that the priest he had accused had passed away. When Lori offered him “free counseling out of our concern for him and his situation,” Wojnowski declined the help. Wojnowski explains he had already accepted another priest’s offer of pastoral counseling, but he had an old car with bad brakes and felt uncomfortable driving to appointments on the Beltway.
The Vatican Embassy has kept the door closed on its picketing neighbor. “The Apostolic Nunciature respects Mr. Wojnowski and surely has for him sincere sentiments of Christian charity,” the Vatican declared in an official statement to the Washington City Paper. “Similar cases are indeed within the competence of the local church authorities.”
So instead of pursuing his claim in court, Wojnowski has taken it to the streets. Wojnowski suggests that the most powerful healing for him has occurred right there, out on the pavement. “I’ve been avoiding people all my life,” he says. “See, this—this is therapy for me. I’ve never felt so good in all my life.”CP