Victims of clergy sexual abuse and their supporters demonstrate in Rome in this CNS file photo. The organization Awake Milwaukee is building spiritual bridges between victims and the general Church community. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Abuse survivors build bridges to reconciliation

By  Lea Karen Kivi, Catholic Register Special
  • March 30, 2023

The Pope’s prayer intention for March 2023 was that victims of abuse find within the Church herself a concrete response to their pain and suffering. One organization already responding to such pain by building spiritual bridges between victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse and the general Church community is Awake Milwaukee (Awake).

Recognized as a local safeguarding institution by the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, the mission of Awake ( has spread internationally and included Canadian participants — individual survivors as well as the group Concerned Lay Catholics. This recognition by the Vatican is important, according to founder and executive director Sara Larson, as it demonstrates: “We are not against the Church. We are with the Church.”

Larson has a theology degree from Marquette University and experience in parish ministry within her beloved Catholic Church. In 2018, she felt “shook up” by the then current wave of abuse scandals. 

“What had been a wonderful support for me had been a source of pain for other people,” lamented Larson at the time. 

After much time in prayer, she discerned a call to devote herself full-time to responding to the abuse crisis.

Awake has proceeded thoughtfully and cautiously in offering trauma-informed events connecting victims/survivors to the Church community. These events are meant to build bridges to other Catholics who have not experienced abuse but desire to be in solidarity with those who have. As its formative days occurred during a global pandemic, most of the offerings are online.

One of the most powerful spiritual offerings by Awake is an online Way of the Cross. This virtual prayer experience combines traditional stations with meditations written by victims/survivors, and has established itself as a Lenten tradition amongst Awake’s community members. According to Larson, victims/survivors reflecting on their experiences and connecting them to Jesus’ experience has been really powerful and healing for them. One Canadian survivor shared that the experience helped her feel the love of Mother Church “in such an understanding way.”

The core of what Awake does is to offer a Survivor Circle ministry. Currently, four different circles meet once a month on Zoom where people get to know one another and grow in trust and friendship over time. One of the many losses victims/survivors experience, states Larson, is the loss of community. This ministry attempts to counteract that sense of isolation. Participants speak of how important these circles have been to them, providing a space where some have felt safe enough for the first time to talk about abusive experiences they had decades ago.

Every other month, Awake alternates an educational event with a prayer event. For Larson, it is important to ground the group’s work in faith and offer spiritual experiences. The educational events are called Courageous Conversations. At one such recent conversation, Fr. Hans Zollner, director of the Safeguarding Institute of the Pontifical Gregorian University, engaged with survivors of clergy sexual abuse in a question-and-answer session and spoke about Vos estis lux mundi — new laws issued by Pope Francis in 2019. 

Occasionally, Awake offers in-person events. Recently, the group offered “in a safe, gentle way,” a mini-retreat that included time for personal reflection, guided meditation, small group conversation and community-building time. 

Being clear as to what to expect at such events, Larson emphasized, is key to creating a safe environment as is providing freedom for participants to take care of themselves in any way — including stepping away and taking a break, or choosing not to participate in every activity offered.

Another important aspect of creating a sense of safety is encouraging participants who haven’t experienced abuse to put aside the attitude of “oh these poor, sad people, we need to help them.” Instead, they are invited to engage with victims/survivors and share their own painful experiences. Also, by listening to the stories of victims/survivors, they recognize that they are people of great strength and resilience. Affirming that we are all human beings and that we all have our wounds, as well as listening to one another and sharing our experiences are essential, in Larson’s point of view, to building bridges of reconciliation towards one another.

(Lea Karen Kivi is president of Angela’s Heart Communications Inc.)

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