Friday, June 29, 2012

John Wojnowski: In Solitary Witness

Abuse survivor and activist John Wojnowski is a remarkable man.  I think I first became aware of him and of the solitary witness he has given for years now as he calls the Catholic hierarchy to accountability, when I read this account of his interaction with the papal nuncio, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish site in 2010.

I've wanted to write about John Wojnowski since then--to acknowledge his heroism and his solitary witness--but I've never quite known how to do so. The problem is, I suspect, that I lack Wojnowski's courage and concentrated, unwavering determination to see justice done.  Which have led him for years to stand day after day in front of the Vatican embassy in D.C., calling for justice, since, as Ariel Sabar writes in her profile of Wojnowski in the latest issue of the Washingtonian

Without justice, how is a wronged man—a wounded man—to heal?

Standing day after day, bearing silent testimony, holding signs, and asking for one single, simple thing from a church one of whose priests, John Wojnowski says, molested him when he was 15 years old, leaving deep, permanent scars: justice.

And hearing back, he says, from Archbishop Sambi, 

"You are a loser. You are a loser with a camera. You are a total loser." (Sei un fallito. Sei un fallito come fotografo. Sei un fallito totale) March 19, 2010  
"I do not speak with crazies" (No parlo con i pazzi, in response to Wojnowski's request in Italian for a brief chat with the Nuncio) May 3, 2009  
"Imbecile. Cretin. I am ashamed of you, a gift to the enemies of the Church." (Deficiente cretino per mi vergogno di te, un dono hai nemici de la chiessa) March 21, 2009  
"Cretin" (Cretino) Feb. 18, 2009 

And on and on: read Andrew Sullivan's account of what Wojnowski reports that Sambi said to him (in Italian, which Wojnowski speaks) as the archbishop passed Wojnowski standing in front of the nunciature over the years.

Sabar's profile of Wojnowski is outstanding.  Please read it.  I like that she gets the aspect of witnessing that, to me, seems central to Wojnowski's life and activism.  As she reports, "A few Catholics I spoke to said they saw his sign-bearing as part of the Christian tradition of 'witnessing.'"

Until reading Sabar's story, I had somehow missed the fact that one of Wojnowski's first contacts, as he pled for justice from the Catholic hierarchy after his abuse by a priest ruined his life, was with that rising star of the contemporary U.S. Catholic church, Archbishop William Lori.  Who was delegated by then-archbishop James Hickey of D.C. to deal with Wojnowski when Wojnowski first went public with his allegations of abuse by a priest in Italy.

Sabar reports that after Wojnowski asked Hickey for a hearing, and Hickey delegated Lori to deal with him, nothing happened.  Nothing happened after Lori heard Wojnowski's story--except that Lori sought to pin the blame for Wojnowski's demand for justice on a local parish priest whom Wojnowski had approached for pastoral counsel, Father Michael Blackwell.

And so this happened when Wojnowski realized he was being stonewalled, treated like a cretin, a non-person, an insane man, rather than a brother in Christ who had asked for healing and justice from the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church:

Faced with more silence, Wojnowski photographed a question mark at the end of one of his letters to Lori, enlarged it to a height of four feet and traced its outline on a plank of plywood. At the top of the plank, he wrote, "Bishop Lori, do you recognize this question mark?"

As I say, please read Sabar's well-written and well-researched account of John Wojnowski's life and impassioned solitary witness.  I'm strongly inclined to believe what Wojnowski says about his dealings with the Catholic hierarchy, and to understand his tremendous alienation from the Catholic church after the way in which he has been treated, because aspects of his story dovetail with my own much less significant saga when I was given a terminal contract by Belmont Abbey College in 1991 with no disclosed reason for the termination.

As I've noted on this blog, when this happened, I asked to speak to the abbot of the monastery that owns this college, who informed me in no uncertain terms (but in writing and by phone: never face to face) that he had nothing to do with the college and would not see me (but who later told people, when I resigned following the college's and monastery's shoddy, unChristian, and dishonest treatment of me, that he was incensed that I hadn't come to see him before I resigned!).

When my approach to the abbot failed, I turned to the bishop of Charlotte, who was then William Curlin, a crony of Hickey.  I told Curlin in letters precisely what I had told Oscar Burnett, the Belmont abbot, in the letters I had sent him, which earned me a door slammed in my face: that I merely wanted to talk to someone with pastoral authority in the church about how the unjust treatment I had received from Belmont Abbey College was affecting my faith.

I was crushed.  I was having serious difficulty hanging on to my faith.  I felt viscerally repulsed when I would go to eucharist at the Belmont Abbey church and see presiding at the altar monks who had, I knew full well, played a decisive role in taking away my livelihood, my salary, my health coverage, and who then expected me and others to revere them as they offered us the bread of life.

While they snatched from the mouths of some fellow Catholics their daily bread, without explanation.  And while they themselves lived in perfect economic security, despite their vows of poverty.

Curlin refused ever to see me face to face, though he told me through an intermediary that he was unhappy with the treatment that Belmont Abbey College had dished out to me.  As did Hickey in the case of Wojnowski, Curlin sent a subordinate to talk to me, a former monk whom Curlin had made his diocesan vicar, Mauricio West.

And, ultimately, absolutely nothing resulted from these encounters.  Nothing happened to bring justice. Nothing happened to call to accountability the institution that had taken away my job without explanation.

The abbot who had claimed he had nothing to do with running the college seized the helm of the college, made himself its president, and began a purge (which continued under the next president, whom the abbot hand-picked, a brother-in-law of the abbot's second-in-command) that resulted in the dismissal of a slew of faculty and staff rumored to be gay, Steve included, on bogus grounds of financial exigency.  Though in the very summer after these members of the campus community were dismissed for ostensible financial exigency, the college administrators found thousands and thousands of dollars to spiff up the college's buildings and repave its parking lots . . . .

There was no justice.  There was no pastoral outreach, no desire even to see the human face of those treated with ultimate brutally by this Catholic institution.  The more I asked for a hearing from Bishop Curlin, the more I became a pariah--crazy, some of the Belmont Abbey faculty and many of the monks began to say.  He's crazy.  He writes these letters and tells his story all over the place.  Just crazy.

As I say, I understand John Wojnowski and where he's coming from.  Only last week, I had a wonderful conversation with another abuse survivor whose story rang many bells in my head--though the abuse I have endured at the hands of Catholic authorities is not sexual abuse and I cannot claim to know the very deep, soul-wrenching kind of pain that comes from that particular sort of abuse.

This man's story, too, runs through my head as I read Sabar's account of John Wojnowski's solitary witness.  Like me, he naively believed that when he approached a bishop and the head of a religious community with his story, their primary concern would be pastoral.  They'd surely want to extend a helping hand, to offer healing.

They'd want to listen, to meet with him, to rectify what had gone wrong.

As in my case (which, again, cannot hold a candle to these other two), as in John Wojnowski's, in the case of this abuse survivor, the overriding concern of the pastoral authorities was, instead, to plug legal holes, to find out who had talked to whom, to lay a foundation for a legal defense against this survivor of boyhood abuse by Catholic Brothers teaching in a Catholic school.  To discredit the abuse survivor ("You're making all of this up; we haven't heard stories like this from anyone else; you're out to make money; you're crazy.")  As with Wojnowski and me, this abuse survivor was lied to, given the runaround, and offered no pastoral consolation or assistance at all.

The survivor told me he could not imagine now that he had ever been naive enough to think that Catholic pastoral officials would want to respond to his story of abuse pastorally.  With healing foremost in their mind.  With the intent to see justice done.

I told him I understood--fully!--because of my experience with Belmont Abbey College and the diocese of Charlotte.  Like this survivor, until my eyes were opened by the brutally inhumane treatment dished out to me by the monks at Belmont Abbey and the bishop of Charlotte when all I asked for was pastoral counsel, I still--God help me--clung to the illusion that the clerical leaders of the Catholic church are largely men of honor, principle, and compassion!

And I understand where John Wojnowski comes from, after my experience with that college and the monastery that owns it, and with the diocese of Charlotte.  Though I lack the courage to stand with a sign day after day asking the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church, who preach to us that they stand uniquely for Jesus the Good Shepherd in the Christian community, "Do you recognize this question mark?" I'm glad someone is doing that.

If only for the sake of the gentlemen to whom the question is directed.  Since their salvation and mine depends on whether we see the face of Jesus behind the question mark and behind the sign being held up before our faces.

P.S. In case it's not immediately apparent, I'm borrowing the theme of solitary witness from Gordon Zahn's superb book about Franz Jäggerstätter, In Solitary Witness.

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