WASHINGTON — It's as predictable as the master clock across the street at the US Naval Observatory noting every passing second, minute, hour in large red block numbers.
Nearly every evening for the past 17 years — rain or shine, snow, or sleet — John Wojnowski, a retired ironworker wearing a frayed army field jacket and khaki pants, ambles up the sidewalk in front of the manicured Vatican embassy and unfurls a large banner held together with three duct-taped broomsticks.
"Vatican Hides Pedophiles."
On the eve of Pope Francis' first trip to the United States, Wojnowski remained nonplussed at the possibility of a face-to-face encounter with the head of the institution he blames for his "damaged, wasted life" since age 15, when he says an Italian priest molested him.
"This is my third pope" since beginning his silent protest, he said. "They're all cowards," he said, though he declared Francis "smarter than the previous one, but still a company man."
His audience is as much the traffic crawling along Massachusetts Avenue as it is the Vatican officials — men in suits and black gowns — stepping in and out of the elegant embassy. Sometimes, Vice President Joe Biden's motorcade will zip past on its way to Biden's home at the US Naval Observatory.
Wojnowski is 72 now. Despite cataracts, rickety knees, and a heart attack five years ago, Wojnowski holds his solo vigil three hours a day, seven days a week. His right thumb is calloused from holding his sign. The weights at the bottom have carved a half circle into the concrete sidewalk over the years.
"My life would have no meaning if I didn't do this," said Wojnowski, who travels one to two hours a day by bus and subway from his home in Bladensburg, Md., to his post. "This is my job."
Francis is expected to arrive at the embassy, known officially as the Apostolic Nunciature, to rest for the evening after landing in Washington Tuesday. What would Wojnowski say if they cross paths?
"Please give me some justice," Wojnowski said. By justice, he means reparations, though he's refused to hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit like thousands of other victims who have alleged abuse by Catholic priests.
Francis has espoused "zero tolerance" for priests who sexually abuse minors. In June, he set up the church's first tribunal for bishops who fail to protect children from pedophiles. But victim advocates criticize the pontiff for not doing enough globally in response to the crisis as those accused of abuse continue receiving second chances, with the Vatican's permission.
"It's public relations," Wojnowski said. "They're all trapped in this parasitic entity."
When Wojnowski first reported the abuse to the Archdiocese of Washington in a 1997 letter, officials told Washingtonian magazine that they contacted the diocese in Italy where he alleged the abuse occurred. They found that the priest had died many years ago. The archdiocese said it offered Wojnowski free counseling, but he declined.
And thus began his daily protest. It was like therapy, of sorts. A loner for much of his adult life, the slender man with closely cropped white hair and black horn-rimmed glasses will now engage anyone who approaches.
Wojnowski has been spat upon and insulted — once, he said, by a Catholic priest. Drivers passing used to make obscene gestures, shouting, "Loser! Get over it! Get a life!" The verbal harassment stopped, for the most part, after 2002 when The Boston Globe documented widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
On Monday evening, barricades had been erected along the sidewalk, obstructing Wojnowski's access to his usual spot just before the property line. When Pope Benedict visited Washington in 2008, security had pushed the crowd, along with Wojnowski, a block away from the embassy.
Now, the barricades also blocked him from the bushes he normally ducks behind to relieve himself.
"I'm old. Sometimes I have to pee," he explained, apologetically. So he headed off in search of a restroom. The Buddhist cultural center up the street was closed. As was the Orthodox church across the street. Luckily, there was one lone portable bathroom behind the church. He'd never thought to ask the Vatican embassy to use their facilities.
"Every day I am here, it's difficult for me," he said. "They are stealing one day at a time from my life."
As a steady drizzle fell, a driver rolled down his window at the stop light at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 34th Street NW.
"Are they going to let you stay when the pope is here?" the man shouted.
"We'll find out," said a soft-spoken Wojnowski, with a faint accent reminiscent of his Polish Italian upbringing.
"Good luck!" The light changed. Cars sped away. Several honked in support of the slightly stooped man in a poncho, a sight as familiar as the evening rush hour traffic.