John on Doing What He Must by Danny Harris

Photo by Danny Harris

Danny Harris is a DC-based photographer, DJ, and collector of stories. In September, he launched People’s District, a blog that tells a people’s history of DC by sharing the stories and images of its residents. Every day, People’s District presents a different Washingtonian sharing his or her insights on everything from Go Go music to homelessness to fashion to politics. You can read his previous columns here.

“I was born in Poland, but I grew up in Italy. In 1958, I was molested by a Catholic priest at the age of 15. He was the priest of a small village where I was camping in the mountains on Italy. To this day, I still do not know the name of the priest. He offered to tutor me in Latin and then he molested me. In my case, it was only once. I can’t imagine what it is like for people who are molested more than once. I was so traumatized. It was literally like being hit by lightning.

“After that, I was totally crushed and helpless. My first thought was that I ruined my life forever. My personality changed. I started to stutter and it stunted my growth. It made me insecure and withdrawn. When I went back to high school, people used to ask me why I was so sad all of the time. I used to tell them that my best friend died to get them off my back. The worse thing is that I blocked it out of my mind for 39 years.

“When I was 20, I left home and went to Canada by myself to get away from everything. When my younger brother wanted to join me, he was not able to get a Canadian visa, so we moved to Washington in 1963 because the American government was still issuing visas. We served in the U.S. Army together and then I went on to work in construction. I never really made anything of my life as I was so traumatized by my molestation. In my head, I was always a dish washer. My father had two Ph.Ds and a good job in Italy. I disappointed everyone in life, my parents, my wife, and my children. Continues after the jump.

“In 1997, there was a scandal in Texas and a boy committed suicide over molestation. I learned about the scandal in the news and that was the first moment that I started to recall my experience. I went to talk with a priest in Maryland about it. I was so nervous that I drove miles from my home so nobody I knew would see me, parked in a shopping center near by and then walked to the church to to see the priest. He sent me to therapy, but the therapist was a religious Catholic. You can’t be a religious Catholic and an impartial therapist about an issue like this.

“The priest told me to write a letter to the Diocese and send a copy to the Vatican Embassy. In the fall of 1997, that is what I did. Sometime later, I received a letter from a bishop who seemed concerned and asked for more information. I wrote another letter with all of the details I had. No answer. I wrote another letter. No answer. I wrote a third letter. No answer. They were ignoring me. By then, I realized how much damage this had done to my life. I could not let this go by.

“At the time, I was not ready to talk about my molestation publicly, so I stood outside the Embassy with a huge question mark and a sign that said, ‘Bishop, why don’t you recognize my letter?’ The bishop eventually wrote me back saying that the priest who allegedly molested me died ten years ago, but he would pray for me and the church would pay for my therapy. I thought that prayers of the Bishop were not quite good enough for a wasted life. So in 1998, I made this big sign that said, ‘My life was ruined by a Catholic pedophile priest.’ I stood on this corner where I still stand today. There were many intelligent people who would give me a thumbs up or a victory sign. But, everyday people would yell, ‘Hey, loser’ to me. Can you imagine standing with that sign and people yell, ‘Hey, loser’ to you? I have also had people give me the finger and insult me, including priests. Can you imagine?

“I have been here everyday, seven days a week, since 1998. I want reparations. The money would show that they suffer a little bit. If I got reparations, I would stop doing this. They are scared of paying me, though, because of the precedent. There are thousands of kids who were molested in Italy alone. And look at all of the cases that are coming out now around the world.

“There is a quote by John F. Kennedy that has guided me through all of this, ‘A man does what he must – in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures – and that is the basis of all human morality.’

“Would you give up? I couldn’t live with myself if I did. Life would make no sense if I didn’t do this.”

38 Comment

  • John, I drive by your corner every day to/from work, and I’m so glad to have the story behind your signs. Keep fighting, and know that there are people here supporting you.

  • Wow. Thanks for doing this profile.

  • I salute John for his courage and tenacity.

  • I commend him for his efforts, and hope that he can get the satisfaction that he needs to move foreword and eventually live a fulfilling life.

    I run down Mass several times a week, and John is always out there. I always wondered about his back story, but by the time I got home I always forgot to look him. Now I will be sure to give him the thumbs up.

  • Damn that’s sad. I wonder what reparations he wants and if he got them whether he could move on. I’ve always wondered about this man so thanks for the profile.

  • The Catholic church has a lot to account for. Personally, I think there’s a special place in hell for people who hurt children, the elderly and animals.

  • Religion is a plague on this earth. It’s useless and causes way more harm than good and there is nothing inherently good that comes from religion that you can not have without it.

  • I do feel for John and the Catholic church should pay for what they did but there are millions of people molested and raped throughout the world and many of them are able to have a fulfilling life.

    I think the ultimate win for John would be to be able to go on and live a productive life dispute the horrendous actions of that Priest. I am concerned that he feels stuck in life because of Catholic church and the priest.

    Perhaps he could council other people that have lived through the same experiences he has? Helping others could help bring peace to him.

    • Some people are able to use the experience as a catalyst or motivator for their life’s mission (such as counciling people). Other’s are wounded and that wound remains unhealed for a lifetime. This is true of many experiences and afflictions.

      As a Catholic this is a troubling issue and one that challenges my faith frequently. The code of silence whether in the military, police force, church or any other organization only breeds problems. I hope the latest scandal finaly forces the church to open the leadership to scrutiny.

      John – thank you for what you do.

  • I used to honk at this guy when I would come down Mass.

    I hope he can find the help he needs so that that priest/this Church does not consume him.

  • “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”

    This man is living proof.

  • I wonder what his wife and kids think about what he is doing. Are they proud? Ashamed? Understanding? I do think that the Church needs to come clean and start bringing in the civil authorities. Turn in a pedophile to the police, let them face the justice system and protect the children, don’t hide them or ship them off to another parish to prevent the “scandal.” So many people accused of sexual assault get off anyway because there are no witnesses, it’s sickening. Maybe the Catholic Church and the Steelers could join up.

  • Is anyone else surprised that religion is still hanging on in the year 2010? I am. I guess the question is whether or not it’s in its last throws? My own view is that it’s importance will greatly diminish in the coming decades. But maybe it’s just wishful thinking. I think it would go along way to start taxing them. Less money equals less political influence, equals less money to pay your victims to keep quiet.

    • For many, religion addresses a part of human existence that goes beyond the physical world that people encounter on a day to day basis. There are experiences, like love, truth mercy, suffering and death that prompt people to seek answers beyond “politics” and everyday tangible experience. It crosses all cultures and been this way since the beginning of human cognizance, so I wouldn’t expect any changes in the existence of religion this year. But perhaps in 2011.

      • Yea it nicely fills the void for asking questions like why babies die in earthquakes. Nevermind. God works in mysterious ways. Just like jerks aren’t really jerks. They are just mysterious.

  • I’m about as anti-catholic-church as one can be, and I have sympathy for John and all the victims. However. Do we really think that after 12 years of standing on a street corner with a sign, that the church cutting him a check would turn his life around? I can’t imagine how that would work. Victimhood is so deeply engrained in him that no amount of money will ever heal him.
    Not saying that the church shouldn’t take action. Just doubting that it would do John any psychological good at this point.

    • he is helping bring their actions to a public view. He may not help himself but he will help to dismantle the organization. All of their followers keep their head in the sand and ignore all of this because they rather be comforted by the fantasies because of their fear of death.

      This guy makes it harder by putting their hypocrisy in their face

      • That’s a load of tripe. Do you always generalize so carelessly?

        • Religion causes mostly damage. That is not tripe.

          “You can’t resolve it [AIDS] with the distribution of condoms, On the contrary, it increases the problem.” – the POPE.

          That’s right – use of condoms INCREASES Aids.

          Want more?

          • Mostly damage? Tripe. I’m impressed with your faith in condoms, but the reality is they alone aren’t going to stop AIDS. And if you choose to ignore the moral component to human sexuality, you’re blinding yourself to a big part of the problem.

            Anyhow, if the pope’s position on condoms is all you know of religion, you have a lot to learn.

          • “Anonymous,” there is no argument that the Vatican is and has been hopelessly out of touch on crucially relevant issues of our time: AIDS, birth control, and abuse scandals are immediately apparent. But perhaps you could be more specific: which Pope said that? Did that particular person make any further statements or observations on the topic? Did every single Catholic worldwide unanimously agree with that statement? Did every Christian? Every person worldwide who observes any religion anywhere? Get back to me on that, please.

            I have to wonder: have you ever bothered to educate yourself about any of the humanitarian and life-saving efforts that have rescued, clothed, fed, and provided shelter for millions of lives throughout the world? Ever notice how many hospitals are named after churches, or how many food kitchens and shelters are housed in, run by, or connected to religious organizations? Or are you content to simply be smug and lazily regurgitate comments about assorted negative instances that can somehow be connected to a religious organization? Come on: if you have a valid criticism (and with the AIDS comment, you do), at least frame it accurately, and attribute it appropriately.

            Saying that all religion everywhere is terrible and damaging, and supporting that broad swipe with one ill-informed statement by one Pope, is the equivalent of hearing one “song” by the Pussycat Dolls and then making a blanket declaration that all music is terrible. Not “that *song* is terrible,” or even “that group” makes terrible music, but all music, ever, by anybody, in any genre, throughout history. And hey: that song was a hit, so that must mean by its very nature and success that everyone who listens to music must love it, so therefore everyone who listens to music of any kind is a moron. Or terrible. Yes, it makes logical sense: you heard a crap Pussycat Dolls song once, and that song was actually a hit record, so you are therefore qualified to declare that the Beatles, Bob Dylan, John Coltrane, Sam Cooke, Aretha Franklin, Duke Ellington, Johnny Cash, Bob Marley, Bernard Herrman, Ennio Morricone, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Franz Liszt, Chopin, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Vivaldi — all worthless. Because they all made music, you see, and you heard that one awful Pussycat Dolls song once, so you therefore *know* conclusively that Music, as an art form, is awful and has nothing to offer. People who make music are bad people, and people who listen to music are morons. Because one crap group had one crap hit. Or, in your scenario, one temporary figurehead of one branch of one form of one of the many, many worldwide religions that have existed since the dawn of civilization made a stupid statement. Conclusion: all religion = bad. Nicely done, Aristotle.

            You’re apparently unaware of this, but there is actually more to organized religion than the Roman Catholic church, and even within the Catholic church there is much disagreement. It evidently has escaped your powerful and well-educated mind that the majority of people on Earth who do follow a religion have no tie whatsoever to what the Pope says. Perhaps you’ve heard of Buddhism. Or Hinduism. Or Judaism. Or Islam. Or Confucianism, Shinto, Taoism, Sikh. Or you might be loosely aware that every civilization in recorded history has had at least one form of religion. Or that half a millennium ago there was a huge split from Roman Catholicism, and that today there are over 1,000 different forms of Christianity in the U.S. alone, and Catholicism only accounts for less than a third of it: you’re no doubt familiar with the words Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Baptist, Presbyterian, Quaker, etc. (Hint: they’re not Catholic. Also not Catholic: Jews.)

            But please conveniently ignore all those millions of people who are religious in other, long-established forms: you’re mad at Christianity and believe that it alone has caused great damage to the world, with nothing good to ever come of it. So please explain: how does your theological interpretation square with the principal Christian messages of kindness, service to others, humility, forgiveness, love for all people, love for one’s enemies, welcoming outsiders, feeding the hungry, and helping the sick and the poor? As I understand it, those are the main messages that Jesus taught his followers, so I guess I don’t see the connection that you’re making, unless you’re presumptuously mistaking the present-day acts of a small number of adherents as the overarching teachings of an entire faith, throughout history.

            As of recent polls, roughly 85% of Americans consider themselves religious in some way (including, as you may have heard, the President). By your logic, that’s about 260 million people who are either actively damaging both themselves and the remaining 15% who don’t claim any religious affiliation, or are simply sheep who don’t know any better. That’s a rather broad stroke to paint with; hats off to you for being so comfortable with such a strong generalization. The majority of humanity throughout history have observed one form of religion or another, and yet to hear you tell it, it’s ALL BAD. So how did the world ever survive, let alone end up with any good in it? Pure luck? Simple math would indicate that at least a few of the geniuses and great people in world history would fall into that demographic of religious folk. But to follow what you’re saying, people who are religious are either a) evil, or b) moronic. All of them. (All but Homer Simpson, that is: “Boy, everybody is stupid except me!”)

            One last thing: religions are based on the idea of an external, spiritual good, and they all teach positive lessons about helping others, however they are all only able to function through the work of humans. And humans make mistakes. You, for example, made the mistake of attributing a single statement by one leader of one of the myriad religions around the world as being emblematic of all religious thought throughout history. To attribute the mistakes of a human, or even many humans, as the reason or guiding credo behind a larger religion is a colossal error. There are many of us who find great fault with the acts of some of those involved in organized religion, and anyone who follows the principal messages behind any one of these religions should be rightfully appalled at the actions of those people. From what I hear, most are. There are also a great deal of people out there who are religious who are also extremely intelligent and independent thinkers. If you’re going to have a discussion — let alone an argument — with them, you’re simply going to have to bring more to the table than a lazy broad-sweeping generalization based on a few things you’ve heard. Educate yourself.

  • “The depravity of man is the most empirically verifiable fact, but also the most resisted by the human mind.” Malcolm Muggeridge

  • Kudus for doing his small part toward changing the world for the better, but I wonder if that no-nukes lady in front of the White House would take a pay off too.

  • We should be very skeptical about claims of sexual abuse based on “recovered memories” which is what this case is. Of course, such inconvenient facts muddy the preferred overarching narrative.

    • Sounds like the Catholic Church has now infiltrated PoP.

    • You are right, we shouldn’t divert attention from the Churches oppression of women or homophobia or suggesting condoms increase the risk of AIDS, the glorification of poverty – you know – all the GREAT things about the church.

  • Folks making broad, negative generalizations about the Catholic church is cool around here. We can rag on all types around here… as long as they’re the right, wrong types.

  • Best wishes John.

  • I love all the generalizations that get thrown around about Catholics, as if we’re all a bunch of nutty right-wing pro-lifers who condone child abuse and live by every word the Pope says.

    Funny how it’s just fine to throw around these generalizations in regard to Catholics, but if we were talking about Jews or Muslims, it would be deemed hate speech.

    • No you all deserve ridicule. The fact is that if you are a Catholic you directly support and sponsor an organization that actively promotes these things.

      • Then by your brilliant logic, you fullly deserve to have the crap beat out of you when you visit some foreign country because as an American citizen, you are automatically active in promoting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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