Sara Larson was working as the Director of Family Ministry for a group of four parishes in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in the summer of 2018, when two reports related to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church came out. She read about former-cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s sexual abuse of several victims (both children and adults) and the cover-up by Church leaders that allowed him to rise to such a high rank in the Church. Then, she read the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which detailed accounts of abuse and coverup in the dioceses of Pennsylvania. These reports challenged Larson’s faith and motivated her to work for change. This week, her organization is hosting listening sessions to highlight the voices of abuse victim-survivors in the Church.
“As someone who worked for a parish and represented (and often defended) the Church to others, I felt personally betrayed when I realized that current Church leaders were still abusing, lying, and covering up for one another,” she recalled. “I also felt guilty about my previous ignorance and inaction about this issue. … My faith in God was not shaken, but my faith in the Catholic Church certainly was.”
The Creation of Awake Milwaukee to Serve Abuse Victim-Survivors in the Catholic Church
After months of researching, listening to survivors’ stories, crying, praying, and arguing with God, Larson said she felt called to leave her job in parish ministry and work full-time to address the issue of sexual abuse in the Church – even though she wasn’t sure what that would look like yet.
Larson now serves as the Executive Director of Awake Milwaukee, an organization that grew out of a blog she started called In Spirit and Truth, as well as subsequent gatherings of other concerned Catholics who met in Larson’s living room to discuss how they could take action. The organization became a non-profit in 2020, with the mission to “awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and work for transformation and healing in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and beyond.”
In the years since then, Awake Milwaukee has expanded its reach to a global audience, and has even connected with the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. While the group remains rooted in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and still hosts some in-person gatherings, the pandemic forced them to move many events online. Larson said this ended up being a gift in helping them to reach more people across the country and the globe.
The organization hosts four “survivor circles,” which invite those who experienced sexual abuse in the Church to connect with one another for community and support through safe, structured, and consistent online gatherings. They also host “courageous conversations,” a speaker and discussion series designed to deepen understanding and inspire action on the issue of sexual abuse in the Church.
“One of the things that we really want to do is build bridges between those who have experienced abuse and Catholics who do not have that experience,” said Larson. “It has been a really beautiful experience seeing how we are able to create a space where people can have honest conversations about really hard topics.”
Awake fills a gap in the Church’s response to the issue of sexual abuse by providing a space for victim-survivors who are faithful Catholics and want to be honest about problems within the Church.
“We are trying to create this unique space of people who want to work within the Church and love the Church, but also a lot of honesty about all the work that still needs to be done. That is something that it feels like a lot of Catholics have been longing for; that is what many of the people we connect with are looking for,” explained Larson. “Many of the survivors who connect with us are people who have chosen to remain connected to the Catholic Church and want to be able to talk about this stuff really honestly, in a context of faith and desire to remain connected to the Church, but in a place where it is okay to be angry and sad and frustrated and have doubts as well. A lot of people haven't necessarily found that in other things that are out there.”
Centering Abuse Victim-Survivors Through Synod Listening Sessions
As a part of the ongoing Synod on Synodality, Awake Milwaukee will host two listening sessions this week (June 9 & 12) for abuse victim-survivors, their loved ones, and anyone concerned about this issue. As Larson has pointed out, in these listening sessions, Pope Francis is encouraging the Church to engage voices that are left out or marginalized in the Church. She had not seen or heard of any sessions that specifically sought out the stories of abuse survivors. So, after being contacted by a victim-survivor who had attended one of Awake’s events, the organization decided to host their own listening sessions.
“We just really wanted to make sure this issue of abuse in the Church didn’t get overlooked and lost in the midst of all the other issues,” said Larson. “We wanted to host these sessions that would specifically be trauma-informed and supportive for those who have experienced abuse and bring these voices to a larger population.”
This trauma-informed community is a particularly valuable piece of Awake’s work, as Larson has heard from victim-survivors that they may not feel comfortable sharing about their experiences of abuse in the more general listening sessions held by dioceses or parishes.
“The reality is that there are a lot of Catholics that really don’t know how to interact with people who have experienced trauma in sensitive and thoughtful ways. Oftentimes this is unintentional, but there is a lot of harm that can be done in conversations if people aren't attuned to the ways their words can impact someone else,” said Larson. “With Awake, we have a lot of experience working directly with people who have experienced trauma and are trying to create a process that will be supportive.”
This includes using language that acknowledges the varied experiences of abuse survivors, emphasizing the importance of taking breaks if needed, and adopting a pace that includes pauses for deep breathing and re-centering during the sessions. All of the small group facilitators are trained in this trauma-informed approach.
As of June 7, about 85 participants had registered for the listening sessions, with nearly half of those being victim-survivors. Larson said the number of people attending who have lived experience of abuse will make it different from a general listening session, where a victim-survivor may be the only one there who had experienced abuse by a Church leader.
Larson thinks so many victim-survivors have registered for the sessions because Awake has “engaged in relationships of trust over time” and seeks to “make people feel safe; that their experiences will be honored and respected and not judged,” she said.
“Unfortunately in our Church there is a lot of fear, sometimes, of engaging the issue of sexual abuse and the survivors of sexual abuse,” said Larson. “I think there is also the reality that people who have had this traumatic experience may or may not feel comfortable at all times talking about that, so unless you create a safe space and make an effort to win people’s trust, you can’t just ask people to share about these intimate experiences without entering into relationships of trust with them.”
While listening to survivors and building these relationships of trust are hugely important to Awake, Larson also believes that as a Church, we can’t stop with listening.
“The reality is that there is still a lot of work to be done to build a Church that is safe, welcoming, and supportive for all. Catholics need to keep asking hard questions at every level of the Church: in our parishes, in our dioceses, and in the wider Church,” said Larson. “We need to be ready to speak truth to power. We need to be willing to be uncomfortable and make sacrifices in standing up for what’s right.”
If you would like to attend one of the listening sessions, held on June 9 and June 12, registration is still open. A report about the sessions will be published on Awake Milwaukee’s website in late June and also forwarded to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Synod Office.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual abuse by a Catholic leader, Sara invites you to reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you need immediate assistance, please call the RAINN National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or dial 911.