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Eve TushnetDecember 14, 2023

The word awake signifies a change, a new awareness of one’s surroundings. Sara Larson’s awakening came in 2018, following the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and the revelations of then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s long history of abuse. She says the news left her and other Catholics she knew in the Milwaukee area “concerned and hurt and frustrated, and wondering what we could do to help.” In March 2019, a group of people began meeting in Ms. Larson’s living room to discuss ways to respond. They called the group Awake, and it didn’t take them long to settle on an answer.

That August, Awake made its first, formal, public act: an apology in the form of an open letter to survivors of abuse. Ms. Larson says that the group decided to issue the letter because “many apologies that have been given by church leaders feel inadequate.” Awake, she says, “realize[d] that we as members of this church, as the body of Christ, could apologize as well, and make a public commitment to stand in solidarity with survivors and to work for transformation and healing in our church.”

Four years later, Awake has grown into a nonprofit organization, and its response to the abuse crisis has grown, too. The group’s mission is “to awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, work for transformation, and foster healing for all who have been wounded.” The group now does advocacy work and offers many programs that address the needs of abuse survivors. These programs include Survivor Circles, which are support groups led by both an Awake staff member and a volunteer who is a survivor, and Courageous Conversations on subjects ranging from abuse in marginalized communities within the church to raising children in a wounded church.

As part of its mission, Awake leaders have had multiple conversations with Hans Zollner, S.J., an expert on addressing and preventing abuse in the church and a former member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. In March 2023, he resigned from the commission, citing his concerns about its “responsibility, compliance, accountability and transparency.”

Awake was born out of a conviction that survivors are members of the body of Christ: that Catholic prayer, the sacraments and all that the church can offer still belong to survivors, and that they deserve to experience the church in a way that restores, nourishes and heals. Awake also recognizes that, ultimately, survivors follow many paths of healing and discovery.

Awake welcomes members from a variety of faith backgrounds, and with various relationships to the Catholic Church. Some of Awake’s members have always been practicing Catholics. Others no longer have an interest in Catholic practices. But many have an ambivalent relationship to Catholic prayer, sacraments and worship settings. Awake strives to respect each of these perspectives because, for people against whom Catholic spiritual practices were weaponized for grooming and abuse, it can feel as though only a thin veil separates one’s present safety and healing from the trauma of the past.

Awake has taken on the complex task of modeling Catholic practices that are designed to be sensitive to survivors’ needs. These include an annual Way of the Cross for Survivors, in which reflections at each station are written by survivors and connect Jesus’ suffering to the suffering of survivors of abuse in the church. Awake also offers a novena prayer to the organization’s patron saints, which include St. Mary of Edessa, a survivor of rape by a Catholic monk. It also offers an in-person retreat.

Last year, Awake also started its first Survivor Circle that does not include prayer or any other religious element—a circle that “filled up immediately, because there were people who were longing for that,” Ms. Larson says. “Just because a person no longer identifies as Catholic does not mean that they don’t have a spiritual life or a connection with God. One of the things we offer to those who are no longer Catholic is that we recognize the spiritual wounds of abuse by a religious leader and take that very seriously.” She says she has heard from many survivors that those spiritual wounds are “very real and very deep,” and adds that “the public conversation does not always pay attention to that aspect of the wounding.”

Wrestling With a Church That Has Caused Harm

Awake was founded by Catholics who had not experienced abuse in the church, but who wanted to bear greater witness and to take up greater responsibility for abuse survivors. That meant that Awake’s first year involved mostly what Ms. Larson described as “listening and learning.” Members listened to survivors with humility and with a commitment to honoring their experiences and better understanding their needs.

Ms. Larson says this process broke down her own naïvete, including a perspective she feels is common among Catholics, which she summed up as: “Sexual abuse in the church happened, it was really terrible, and it was a long time ago. In 2002 we found out about it and we fixed it, and now we don’t have to really think about it anymore.”

Survivors deserve to experience the church in a way that restores, nourishes and heals.

She adds, “I’d been a devout Catholic my whole life, I was working for the church, and I had never honestly faced this wound in the church.” So she spent the fall of 2018 doing research, listening to survivors’ stories and “deeply wrestling with what it means to love a church that has caused so much harm—and what my responsibility is as a member of that church.”

In 2020, as the group was beginning to host local events, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, forcing their events online. This meant that people across the country could easily connect with the group, which grew faster than they had thought possible. “What we had envisioned as a local organization became national very quickly,” Ms. Larson says.

The composition of Awake’s membership began to shift in ways that were entirely welcome: “More and more people who have the lived experience of abuse are connecting and investing in our programs, and stepping into leadership, which is really what we would hope for,” Ms. Larson says. The Survivor Circles “have become the heart of Awake’s ministry,” she adds, bringing people “from shame and isolation into community, where they feel welcomed and supported and understood.” She says that the wisdom gained from survivor-members—including those on the survivor advisory panel, 13 survivors who are consulted about the group’s decisions and direction—drives “all the other work we do.”

Ms. Larson remains a practicing Catholic and says that means being “both courageously honest and faithful.” She says that in the wake of the abuse crisis, “people often feel like there are two options for Catholics: Either bury your head in the sand, pretend it’s not an issue, or be so angry and have no hope for change that the only option is to distance yourself from the church.”

She hopes that Awake can help Catholics find a more productive response: “There has to be a way for us to both love the church and challenge and speak about hard things.” Awake works to achieve this through a holistic approach that involves four areas of work: education, advocacy, prayer and survivor support. “If you remove any of those pieces, then we’re not fully addressing the issue in a way that’s going to lead to transformation,” she says.

Awake knows that many survivors no longer want a relationship with the Catholic Church. Ms. Larson notes that it can be difficult to navigate how to bring the Catholic faith into spaces filled with “people who have been deeply wounded by leaders of this church.” Yet she has also found that an invitation to some form of prayer can be a useful one in such spaces, and Awake tries to use prayer practices that “draw on the Catholic spiritual tradition but [are] designed to be really trauma-informed, to try to remove as many triggers as we can, and to speak to [survivors’] lived experiences.”

There has to be a way for us to both love the church and challenge and speak about hard things.

She says many survivors have said that “it’s really meaningful” to find a way that they can pray in a way that speaks to them, “but we also know there are people in our community that have no interest in connecting with any of those things, or would like to and just can’t right now.” Awake members are intentional about “not placing guilt or judgment or shame on those who cannot engage” with prayer for whatever reason. Ms. Larson says she often asks herself, “How do we both stay rooted in our Catholic faith and also create spaces [where] those who are not Catholic can feel included and welcomed?”

Sacrifice Versus Being Sacrificed

Catholic beliefs have been deployed, both intentionally and accidentally, in ways that harm survivors. For example, the Catholic understanding that suffering can bring a believer closer to Christ can be used to minimize the anguish of abuse or dismiss the idea that trauma can damage souls.

Mike Koplinka-Loehr is a member of Awake’s leadership team. He grew up as one of eight children and now has four children of his own. He has a deep interest in all the paths by which people connect with a higher power. When I asked him to give a capsule description of himself, he ended with, “He still has a relationship with God.”

Mr. Koplinka-Loehr was groomed and then abused by a priest, beginning when he was a teenager. He responded to the pain and anger of ongoing abuse by shoplifting. Filled with anger and a desire to somehow “get back at” the priest who was abusing him, he would steal, sometimes in the priest’s company, since walking into a store with a man of the cloth seemed to be the perfect cover. There’s a desperate pain there: Nobody would believe a kid with a priest would steal—just like nobody will believe that a priest could abuse. Mr. Koplinka-Loehr tried to make amends in college, sending checks to the stores he could remember stealing from, but he still carries the “volcano of anger” that fueled his actions—and he has only recently begun to discover, underneath the rage, “a deep well of grief.” Many survivors of all kinds of abuse act out in similar ways: ways that can be hard to understand as expressions of suffering, especially if you have only been taught that suffering brings people closer to God.

Cathy Dante, Awake’s chaplain, notes that survivors often blame themselves for their suffering. Ms. Dante says that Catholics may not realize the importance of the “difference between choosing to sacrifice versus being sacrificed.”

One of the most devastating aspects of abuse by clergy is the confusion it causes about the nature of God. For many Catholics, it is comforting to hear that in the sacrament of confession, the priest acts not out of his own ideas or opinions but as an alter Christus, “another Christ.” But how do you understand this doctrine if the confessional was used to groom, abuse or shame you?

I had no idea how hard it would be to really see, firsthand, the depths of evil in a church that I love.

Recently, I attended a church where the parish bulletin featured, among the parish school announcements and reminders of upcoming feast days, a quotation from St. John Vianney: “The priesthood is the love of the heart of Jesus. When you see a priest, think of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Whether this quote strikes you as inspiring or cruelly false may depend on how priests have treated you.

Survivors of abuse by Catholic leaders do not fit any singular description. Some survivors may work to re-understand Catholic beliefs, including ones that have harmed them in the past: Esther Harber, a Catholic convert and Awake’s survivor care coordinator, says that at first she put bishops “on this pedestal that was not fair to them, certainly—but it was [also] not true.”

Ms. Harber notes that survivors often feel a deep ambivalence toward the church. She describes herself as remaining “a devoted Catholic,” and yet she has “seriously considered leaving the church.” Eventually, she says, she realized that “I’m just as much the church as the Holy Father. I am just as valuable and needed in the church as the Holy Father himself, and so is any other survivor—and in a profound way, even more so, because those are the people that Christ himself went seeking for.”

Many Paths to Healing

Awake is not the only group seeking to serve the spiritual needs of survivors. Deborah Rodriguez, a 57-year-old physician, pediatrician and member of Awake’s survivor advisory panel, says she is also “a survivor of reporting the abuse,” calling this reporting “the most traumatic” event of her adulthood, “because groups like Awake didn’t exist back then. Several of those I interviewed also said that facing suspicion or indifference when they reported the abuse, whether to family, police, or (perhaps especially) church authorities, was a more painful betrayal than the abuse itself. Many survivors also describe being treated as a “liability” by their dioceses when they report abuse.

Rodriguez also says that “a survivor’s cultural background is very important to the healing process,” and it is important for survivors to know there are multiple paths for seeking healing. “If a survivor reads [this] article and says, ‘It’s time for me to share’...and if you only have one or two places to call and you don’t resonate with either of them, it’s a really hard spot.”

Awake tries to inform survivors of those options and includes on their website a list of virtual support groups, as well as several other resources, including diocesan victim assistance coordinators, the Maria Goretti Network, and the Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests.

Some of the most faithful people I have ever known have been survivors who somehow maintain a relationship with God.

When I asked the Maria Goretti Network’s founder, Miguel Prats, about the most common false assumption non-survivor Catholics make about survivors, he gave a concise and plainspoken version of something I heard from several other survivors and advocates: “They think a lot of survivors come forward for money. That’s total bull–,” Mr. Prats said, with a rough laugh. “There’s a lot easier ways to make money than suing the Catholic Church.”

Like many other survivors, Mr. Prats says that other Catholics often seem “afraid” of survivors. Deborah Rodriguez offers one diagnosis: Catholic who have not been abused may view survivors as “in desperate need of help. And that leads to fear. They’re afraid we’re going to sue, or we’re going to have some kind of breakdown in Mass.” Ms. Rodriguez attributes these fears to people’s own unacknowledged trauma. She also notes, with a wry laugh, that Catholics may wonder, “It happened in the past, it must be over, aren’t you fixed yet?”

Those who find themselves witnessing, rather than ignoring, the pain of survivors can find that their own faith is shaken to the core. Sara Larson says, “I had no idea how much this would break my heart. How hard it would be to really see, firsthand, the depths of evil in a church that I love and have loved my whole life.” She says that, although she has long felt comfortable in the church, that feeling has changed since she founded Awake: “I have an experience now of never feeling quite at home. [When] I go to my beautiful parish for Sunday Mass, I’m carrying these experiences from so many people who have been so deeply hurt, and some of whom don’t feel welcome in those spaces.”

Ms. Larson says she has found that witnesses sometimes face the same suspicion as survivors: “Talking about these issues makes some people treat me as now an outsider or a threat, or [assume] that we are somehow against the church, when in reality we do this work out of love for the church and for all the members of the Body. I didn’t expect that, and of course [that] speaks to my naivete.”

Survivors and those who seek to support them may find themselves asking whether it’s good for their souls to keep returning to the place where they were harmed. Cathy Dante, Awake’s chaplain, asks, “Are we codependent on the Catholic Church? I struggle with this: ‘Jesus, why am I still Catholic?’ I keep coming back to, ‘It’s where I’m called to be right now.’”

Those who do have faith often say it is a different kind of faith from what they had before they confronted the reality of abuse, in their own lives or in the church. When I asked Esther Harber to consider what she would say to a new convert, she offered a “three-pronged” counsel: “To love Christ above all things, including the hierarchy. This is his church first and foremost. To be faithful to the sacraments. And to love those most disenfranchised by the church.”

So many survivors are people who have such wisdom to offer that we’re often not listening to.

She adds that working with other survivors has strengthened her faith. “Some of the most faithful people I have ever known have been survivors who somehow maintain a relationship with God in the face of [abuse and reporting the abuse]. I’ve heard it compared to the death of a soul, and I relate to that so deeply, and yet somehow in the midst of that they still find love for God, and it is astounding. It is something everyone in the church could learn from.”

Ms. Larson says her experience with Awake has helped her to understand the true depth of an image that has always been important to her: “all of us as members of this body.” She cites 1 Cor 12:26: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” Ms. Larson says she has shared that verse with many survivors, and while most resonate with it, “one person [said] that verse made her really angry,” because she felt she had been suffering alone.

“That, I think, is a big part of the work of Awake: to call attention to the reality that one part of our body is suffering, and honestly much more than we realize,” says Ms. Larson. “If parts of our body, the body of Christ, are suffering and we don’t feel it, we don’t hear it, it doesn’t impact us, then it tells us something is wrong with the functioning of the body.”

She says that, too often, even well-intentioned people approach victim-survivors with an attitude of: “Oh, we need to help these poor, sad, wounded people, who are very Other.” But Ms. Larson is quick to correct that, saying that survivors “are amazing people: women and men of courage and resilience and wisdom, and often very deep faith. So many people in the church seem to see survivors as a threat in some way, and what I see is people who have such wisdom to offer that we’re often not listening to. I wish people could see that if we made space in our church to welcome these voices, there’s so much we could learn, not just about abuse but about faith and about courage, and about Jesus.”

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