07/07/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Solo Vigil Against Clergy Abuse

By Eleanor Goldberg
Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) Protesting every day for the last 12 years has become more challenging for John Wojnowski since his heart attack.

The 67-year-old pauses to breathe deeply while explaining the reasons behind his daily protest outside the Vatican Embassy in this city. He shuffles slowly to hand out flyers. He stops to wipe his dry mouth on his shirtsleeve, but doesn't take a drink. There are no restrooms nearby. He endures the discomfort because he's confident his presence disturbs the Roman Catholic officials inside.

While vacationing in Italy during the summer of 1958, a Catholic priest offered Wojnowski free Latin tutoring, he recalls. But when the 15-year-old Wojnowski sat at his instructor's desk, he said, the priest molested him. Wojnowski 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.

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

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

Though Wojnowski revels in having found his voice on the corner of Massachusetts and 35th Street in this city's northwest quadrant, he mourns the morose turn his life has taken. Once extroverted and social, said he immediately became self-conscious and withdrawn after the incident with the priest.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 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 ultimately 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 claim when he reported it in 1997, despite the fact that the incident occurred in Italy. The archdiocese found out that the priest Wojnowski named was deceased; it has repeatedly offered to fund therapy for Wojnowski, 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 he tried therapy at first but 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" under his breath. He also said that another priest told him that passersby would "laugh" at his signs and flyers after Pope Benedict XVI apologized to American abuse victims in 2008, as though the pope's contrition wrapped up the scandal, leaving no need for further outcry.

To help prevent further abuse, the Catholic dioceses invested more than $21 million in 2009 for child protection efforts such as training programs, background checks and salaries for church staff who work with children, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Things you see in the paper are mostly older cases," Gibbs said of reported 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, currently embroiled in another sex scandal.

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