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 It made me insecure and withdrawn.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.”

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