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Outside Vatican Embassy, 12-year protest against sex abuse

By Eleanor Goldberg
Saturday, May 15, 2010; B02

Protesting every day has become more challenging for John Wojnowski since his heart attack.

Wojnowski, 67, pauses to breathe deeply while explaining the reasons behind his protest outside the Vatican Embassy in Washington. He shuffles slowly to hand out fliers. He stops to wipe his dry mouth on his shirtsleeve, but he doesn't take a drink. There are no restrooms nearby. He has endured the discomfort for 12 years because he's confident that his presence disturbs the Roman Catholic officials inside.

Wojnowski says he was 15 and vacationing in Italy during the summer of 1958, when he was molested by a Catholic priest who had offered him free Latin tutoring. He says he suppressed the memory for nearly 40 years, until he heard of a victim in Texas who had experienced similar abuse and committed suicide.

"You cannot imagine how totally crushed. . . totally powerless" he felt, Wojnowski said of being molested. "To the church, officially, it was a sin. But it was accepted -- no big deal, absolutely everyday business."

Since then, Wojnowski has been waging a solitary mission, determined to make the Vatican pay and sexual abuse stop. He made and displayed his first protest sign 12 years ago. Today, his four-foot-long banner declares, in blocky red and black letters: "Sociopaths Hide Pedophiles. The Vatican Hides Pedophiles."

Though Wojnowski revels in having found his voice at the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and 35th Street NW, he regrets the morose turn his life has taken. Once extroverted and social, he said, he became self-conscious and withdrawn after the incident with the priest.

"Back in high school friends asked me, 'Why are you so sad?' " Wojnowski recounted. "They remembered me smiling and now they see Woody Allen. I told them my best friend died."

He started to fail at his classes and with girls. He stopped dating. Eventually, Wojnowski joined the military with his brother, but he said he felt too insecure to take advantage of the G.I. Bill and go to college. Wojnowski moved to Washington and pursued a construction job he later found unfulfilling. He married the first woman he talked to as an adult. They had a son and daughter, but they divorced.

"The church," Wojnowski said, "they don't understand the damage."

The Archdiocese of Washington says it has been more attentive to Wojnowski's needs than he admits.

Susan Gibbs, communications director for the archdiocese, said it investigated Wojnowski's allegation when he reported it in 1997, even though the incident had occurred in Italy. The archdiocese found out that the priest Wojnowski named was deceased; it has repeatedly offered to pay for Wojnowski to have therapy, Gibbs said.

"When people see his signs, they think he's stuck on the corner," Gibbs said of Wojnowski. "What they don't realize is that people have stopped and have offered assistance, but he has declined."

Wojnowski said that he tried therapy but that it didn't help him the way his vigil does.

Wojnowski said one Catholic cleric who worked at the embassy brushed by him daily, muttering "idiot." He said that another priest told him that passersby would "laugh" at his signs and fliers after Pope Benedict XVI apologized to American abuse victims in 2008, as though the pope's contrition wrapped up the scandal and made further outcry unnecessary.

To help prevent further abuse, U.S. Catholic dioceses invested more than $21 million last year in child-protection efforts such as training programs and background checks, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Things you see in the paper are mostly older cases," Gibbs said of sex abuse scandals. "It's still wrong. We're offering assistance. We know it's possible to get the healing."

Wojnowski, however, still takes issue with the Vatican, which is currently embroiled in a sex scandal that has spread across Europe.

"Absolutely nothing's changed," Wojnowski said of the latest bout of cases in which Catholic bishops are accused of covering up clergy sexual abuse. "They talk about justice and 'never again.' They are only more cautious."

-- Religion News Service

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