All her life, Sara Larson has found a home in the Catholic Church. As a child, she attended Sunday school and youth group. When she got older, she studied theology at Marquette University. She volunteered at her parish, led a Bible study, and served on the parish council. She spent nearly a decade working in parish ministry.
But when the sex abuse crisis broke in 2018, Larson found herself rethinking the way in which she could best serve the Church she loved.
She invited local Catholics into her home for small group discussions about the abuse crisis. These gatherings eventually grew to become Awake Milwaukee, a nonprofit group that promotes listening, education, healing, and change in the local Church through community gatherings, discussion groups, and advocacy work.
Larson says her relationships with abuse survivors have profoundly changed her, prompting her to ask difficult questions and work for real change in the Church.
Charles Camosy spoke with Larson this week, discussing how she came to establish Awake Milwaukee, common misconceptions about abuse in the Church, and where she finds hope and frustration in her work for healing and reform.
Can you tell us a bit about the kind of path that leads one to become executive director of a group like Awake Milwaukee?
This role is certainly not something I would ever have imagined for myself, but God works in mysterious ways! In the summer of 2018, I was loving my job in parish ministry, and I thought I would work in a parish for the rest of my career. Then came the McCarrick scandal and the Pennsylvania grand jury report, which together hit me like a ton of bricks.
I have been a committed Catholic my whole life, but until that time, I had never given serious attention to this issue. I had, at least subconsciously, believed a narrative that is very common among Catholics, which goes something like this: Sexual abuse in the Church was a terrible thing that happened a long time ago, caused by a few bad apples. Once we found out about the problem in 2002, the whole Church came together and addressed the issue. Now, the problem is fixed and it’s time to move on to the real work of the Church.
In 2018, I came to realize that this narrative is not only untrue but also deeply harmful. I spent much of that fall reading, researching, crying, and asking God what He wanted me to do. When I left my job in January 2019, I understood this as saying ‘Yes’ to a call, but I honestly had no idea where this path would lead.
I began by writing a small blog called In Spirit and Truth as a way to process what I was thinking and feeling. Through that blog, I began to connect with many other Catholics who were similarly shaken by the developments of the past year and feeling compelled to take action in some way.
Awake was formed in 2019, which is basically like 10 minutes ago when it comes to the sex abuse crisis in the U.S. Church. What motivated the formation of this group?
On a spiritual level, I would say this group was formed by a movement of the Holy Spirit. On a more practical level, Awake was born from a small group of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who gathered in my living room to talk about this horrible reality in our Church. We came from a variety of experiences and perspectives, but we were united in our frustration and heartbreak. Through our conversations and prayer, we discerned that we felt called to do something together to work for transformation and healing in our wounded Church.
Facing the scale of this atrocity, it was hard to know where to begin and what we could do that would actually make a difference. But we knew we could not just throw up our hands in frustration or point fingers at others for their failings. Our first action as a group was to publish our "Open Letter to Survivors" as a gesture of solidarity and support for all who have been harmed. We had heard many apologies by Catholic leaders, apologies that often seemed designed to minimize the problem or shift blame to others. So, we wanted to start by taking responsibility for our own role as Catholic lay people who had ignored this issue and failed to take action sooner.
We spent much of our first year listening and learning, especially from abuse survivors, who are the true experts on this subject. Just as we became ready to move into more concrete action, the Covid pandemic hit, and we were forced to shift most of our work online. This ended up being a blessing in disguise, as we were able to connect with survivors, their loved ones, and concerned Catholics all over the United States and beyond. Now our Survivor Circles, Courageous Conversations, prayer services, and gatherings for loved ones of victims/survivors all take place online and reach a wide national audience - all due to that movement of the Holy Spirit.
I'm not an expert in this field, but I've heard more than once that abuse survivors are now mostly sick of words from the Church. They want actions--meaningful actions--and not only a cash payment. Does this track with your experience?
One of the most important lessons I have learned from listening to abuse survivors is that each person is a unique and unrepeatable human being, with individual experiences, needs, and perspectives. This may seem obvious, but I think it’s important that we start with recognizing that there is no single perspective that represents all survivors.
That said, I have had individual conversations with over a hundred abuse survivors, and I don’t think a single one has said, “What I really want is for Church leaders to give another talk, release another document, or issue another apology.” Words are powerful, so what we say matters, but even the best words can be harmful if they are out of sync with a person’s actions.
I have learned that financial restitution can be important, especially for those whose entire life has been devastated by their abuse. I also know many survivors who have brought a civil case not because they wanted a financial settlement but because it is the only remaining path to accountability when all other attempts have failed.
On the most basic level, most survivors I speak to want the Church to listen to them and believe them. While Catholics may agree with this in theory, when it comes down to individual people and cases, survivors more often find themselves ignored, blamed, marginalized, and isolated. Awake hosted listening sessions with survivors as part of the global synod process, and it was devastating to hear how widespread this experience is in the Church today, including among survivors who have made reports in the last few years.
Listening and believing is a good place to start, but it’s not enough. As a Church, we need to take meaningful action to create safer environments for both minors and adults, recognize and respond to abuse, and accompany those who have been harmed. There is still much work to be done, and we need to take our lead from survivors in determining these next steps.
I know more and more people in this space are calling for something like a truth and reconciliation commission as a response to the abuse crisis in the U.S. Church. What do you think of this idea as a meaningful action?
Personally, I am deeply attracted to the principles of restorative justice, and I believe that truth-telling is an important part of the healing process. However, I have also seen how many people in the Church - both clergy and laity - remain committed to protecting the institution at the expense of the truth. I strive to be a person of hope, but my experiences have made me skeptical about whether the hierarchy of the Church as a whole is ready to do the difficult work of truth and reconciliation.
I am not an expert on these commissions, but my understanding is that they have primarily been implemented as a path to move forward in the aftermath of a devastating harm that has ended. What I think many Catholics don’t understand is that the harm of sexual abuse and institutional betrayal in the Church has not ended. While we have made significant strides in preventing the sexual abuse of minors, I believe the sexual abuse of adults is still happening on a scale that would shock many. In addition, abuse survivors often say that they have suffered more from the ongoing mistreatment by Church leaders than from the abuse itself; this has certainly not come to an end either. I worry that we may be jumping too soon to the idea of truth and reconciliation without doing the necessary work to stop people from being hurt today.
On the other hand, I have seen how powerful it can be for abuse survivors to tell their stories and have them received with compassion by a safe, supportive community. Survivors who speak publicly at Awake’s Courageous Conversations or on our blog often express how healing it was for them to put their experiences into words and be met with care and empathy. While I have reservations about a national process at this time, these experiences lead me to believe that we can take significant steps towards truth-telling and reconciliation on a smaller scale.
What has been most difficult about your work? Have there been any rays of hope?
When I said yes to this work, I had no idea how much it would break my heart. When I mention this, people often assume that I mean that it’s difficult to sit with survivors as they tell stories of horrific abuse and personal devastation. While it is hard to hear these stories, it’s also a profound honor and gift that has transformed me in ways I never could have imagined.
What is actually the most difficult for me is the strong resistance we encounter in some corners of the Church, and the disappointing apathy we find in others. When you begin walking with abuse survivors, you see how urgent this problem is, so it has become more and more difficult for me to understand this resistance. As a person who is deeply committed to my Catholic faith, I also struggle with knowing that some of my fellow Catholics see me as an enemy of the Church. While I try to let go of this concern, it hurts to be misunderstood by my own community - which I realize is something that abuse survivors often experience in a much more significant way.
Even in our local church community, Awake’s attempts at collaboration have not been greeted with much enthusiasm. After several years of research, we recently shared a set of recommended next steps that the Archdiocese of Milwaukee could take to prevent abuse and support survivors. We have not yet received any formal response from archdiocesan leaders, and our repeated requests for a meeting have not been granted. I know there are good people in leadership who care deeply about these issues, so I don’t fully understand this lack of response. However, we are choosing to assume the best and remain hopeful that there will be an opportunity to share what we are learning in service of our local Church.
In spite of these challenges, I actually find great hope in the work of Awake, because we are constantly affirmed in our sense that God is at work. Every time a survivor reaches out and wants to talk, every time a loved one expresses gratitude for what we are doing, every time someone shares that their mind and heart have been changed by the work of Awake - these moments make all the hard parts worth it.
The biggest source of hope for me is the profound experience of community in Awake’s Survivor Circles, as people support one another through both pain and healing. To witness that love is a gift I would not trade for anything.