The Man Pope Francis Should Meet In Washington, When Pope Francis arrives in Washington Tuesday night, he will set his suitcase down at the Apostolic Nunciature, informally known as the Vatican Embassy. It’s an unassuming mansion along a highly trafficked stretch of Massachusetts Avenue, directly across the street from the Naval Observatory and the vice president’s mansion.
When Francis looks out onto the locked-down avenue, however, closed to all but the southbound buses and a trickle of cars, he probably won’t see a 72-year-old, white-haired Polish immigrant named John Wojnowski, who has become as much a part of that sidewalk as the blistered concrete.
And that’s a travesty, because it means that Francis will not see his embassy in quite the same way that many Washingtonians have glimpsed it through the years. He will not understand the lonely sacrifice of one broken, belittled man, or the depth of despair that exists in some quarters of the American church.
Wojnowski’s story has no clear beginning or end; rather, it replays itself every day, in the same endless loop, and probably will for as long as he’s alive. So let’s just start it here:
One day in 1997, Wojnowski read an in item in the newspaper about a sexual abuse scandal roiling a Catholic diocese in Texas, where the victim had killed himself. An Army veteran and longtime ironworker, Wojnowski had just taken early retirement because of failing knees. Separated from his wife and emotionally estranged from his two children, he was living alone with his regrets in the working-class suburb of Bladensburg, Md., getting by on Social Security and a small pension.
Something about this story jolted him. It unearthed, he says, the shards of an adolescent memory he had blocked from his mind for 40 years.
When he was 15, Wojnowski will tell you, he was tutored by a middle-aged priest in Milan, where his father was a university librarian. The priest touched him and asked him to masturbate. Wojnowski, embarrassed and confused, asked if the priest was going to show his genitalia, too. The rest he has never remembered, or can’t.
“I just remember standing outside the building,” he says. “The feeling was so terrible. So final. I ruined my life.”
His first thought after reliving this memory, though he would be embarrassed to admit this later, was that maybe he could make some money off it. He needed money. Maybe the church would give him $20,000.
So he entered a confessional and told a priest, and the priest sent him to a church therapist, and the therapist told him to write a letter to the Vatican’s embassy in Washington. The therapist told him exactly what the letter should say.
An embassy official wrote Wojnowski back, asking for more details. Wojnowski, who has an eighth-grade education but a natural gift for language, provided more details in another letter, but no one at the embassy replied further. Nor did anyone answer his next several letters.
“They were ignoring me,” Wojnowski says. “They were sure I would do nothing else.”