An Interview with Sara Larson

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D. Profiles in Catholicism



Dr. Knight: How did you begin your initiation into the sexual abuse crisis?

Sara: In August 2018, when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was released and the McCarrick scandal was at its peak, I was busy raising two teenage boys and working in a rewarding job in parish ministry. However, the horrible stories emerging from these two scandals stopped me in my tracks. I am a lifelong, committed Catholic, but until that summer, I had never fully confronted the reality of sexual abuse in the Church that I love. I had told myself a story that a few bad priests had done terrible things in the past, but that we as a Church had united, fixed the problem, and moved on. Over the course of a few months of reading, researching, and listening to the voices of survivors, it became clear to me that the truth is much more complex than this story - and that there was still much work to be done. Ultimately, I felt that God was calling me to fully commit myself to the important work of transformation and healing, so I stepped down from my job and started on the path that ultimately led to my current role with Awake Milwaukee. Our mission is to awaken our community to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and work for transformation and healing throughout the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and I am honored to be part of that mission.

Dr. Knight: What is Awake’s commitment to understanding the full reality of abuse in the Catholic Church?

Sara: Awake began from a small group of Catholics gathering in my living room to discuss our personal reactions to the abuse crisis and what we might be able to do in response. After several months of discussion and prayer, we discerned a call to take action in a unified way, and we founded Awake Milwaukee.

From the beginning, the Awake Leadership Team has been committed to addressing what we call “the full reality” of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. This means we recognize that the problem includes abuse of both children and adults and that perpetrators include both clergy and other church leaders. Instead of the “clergy abuse crisis,” we choose to talk about the “twin crises” of sexual abuse and leadership failures in addressing that abuse. We recognize that these are all important issues that must be addressed to fully confront the problem.

Dr. Knight: Can you tell us how you decided about the Open Letter to Survivors that is on your website and has been very successful?

Sara: The Awake Leadership Team was very intentional about choosing the first public action we would take when we officially launched Awake Milwaukee in August 2019. Before anything else, we wanted to reach out to the victim-survivors who have been so deeply wounded and to offer a sincere apology. While we know that words are not enough, it was important to us to acknowledge the depth of pain and suffering that has been inflicting and, as members of the Catholic Church, to take responsibility for our own role in that injustice.

We composed our Open Letter to Survivors as both a public statement and a personal commitment to stand with survivors in both word and action. We then shared this letter with fellow Catholics and invited them to sign as a small gesture of their own support and solidarity. Almost 300 people have signed the letter at this point, and we continue to gather more signatures. While no letter is going to be perfect or resonate with every survivor, we have received overwhelmingly positive feedback from survivors who have read our letter and are grateful to know that there are Catholics who are willing to admit our failings and stand with those who have been hurt. I invite everyone reading this article to take a moment right now to read the letter and add their name to the list of signatories.

Dr. Knight: What actions have you taken to push for change and help in working toward healing in the Church?

Sara: In the past year, Awake has been very active in raising awareness, building connections, and working for transformation and healing. While many lay-led groups addressing the abuse crisis have emerged around the United States since 2018, Awake is somewhat unique in that we have chosen to take a multipronged approach to this issue. We believe that an effective response needs to combine awareness, education, prayer, advocacy, and most importantly, listening to and walking with survivors. We also believe that it’s important to engage a broad spectrum of Catholics in this work and make clear that you can be passionate about this issue and still remain committed to the Catholic Church. So, we have been approaching this from multiple angles - connecting with and listening to survivors, offering support to Catholics who are struggling, encouraging prayer, dialoguing with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee about polices and procedures, and publishing a blog to help people be better informed about these issues. We have many more projects in mind for the coming year!

Dr. Knight: What support do you give to Catholics in the pews?

Sara: Awake itself is a community-led by and made up of “Catholics in the pews.” We are a grassroots organization that emerged from this shared desire for honest conversation and meaningful action in response to the tragedy of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. From the beginning, we have actively reached out to Catholics from a broad spectrum of perspectives and experiences to listen, learn, and ultimately, invite them to be engaged in the work of transformation and healing. Through our faith-based Discussion Groups, we have discovered that many Catholics are simply grateful to have a space that they can talk about these issues in the context of an honest, prayerful, and supportive community. We also recognized a great desire for reliable information that would help Catholics be better informed about these complex issues, and our weekly blog has been a great tool for meeting that need. In the coming year, we hope to provide more direct support to parishes in engaging with these issues in an honest, proactive way.

Dr. Knight: Why do Catholics need to hear survivor stories and tell us about your 5 ways to listen well.

Sara: First and foremost, we need to listen to survivor stories because survivors need to have their voices heard. Bringing the truth to light is an important part of healing for many survivors, so I believe every Catholic needs to be prepared to receive these stories with grace. Our blog post on this topic included the advice of several experts, who encouraged readers to take their responsibility as a listener seriously, be intentional about responsive body language, and take a break from listening if needed. They also suggested using simple statements to communicate support and offering an apology if it feels appropriate.

I also believe that it’s important for Catholics to listen to survivor stories (whether in person or through articles or videos), because it can be easy for sexual abuse in the Church to feel like a distant, abstract problem if you are not personally connected to an abuse survivor, However, speaking from my own experience, I would say that once you really begin listening to the stories of survivors, you can no longer hold this problem at a distance. When a person of faith truly confronts the humanity of those who have been harmed, it’s impossible not to act.

Dr. Knight: What has your involvement in Awake done for your own spiritual development?

Sara: To be perfectly honest, spending my life engaged with so much darkness and pain has been really challenging for me, both emotionally and spiritually. I don’t think it’s possible to truly invest in the lives and struggles of survivors without being changed in a deep way. So, I have certainly struggled with many of the things I have learned about the Church that I love, but I have also experienced so much grace in the midst of all this. I believe, as the psalmist says, that the Lord is close the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:19), and I feel like I know the heart of the Father so much better than I did before I began this journey. I have been challenged to cling to Jesus like never before and to place my trust in the powerful working of the Holy Spirit. Two of my most frequent prayers are “Jesus, I trust in you,” and “Come, Holy Spirit.” Ultimately, my hope is not in the work of human hands, but in the God who is always moving us towards truth, justice, and healing.

Dr. Knight: How does the conviction that we are the Church affect your work in AWAKE?

Sara: That is a great question, because it gets to the very core of Awake’s mission and why we exist in the first place. In the Discussion Groups we host, we reflect on the passage about the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. That exhortation really challenges me to recognize that every baptized person - whether clergy or laity - is an essential part of the Body of Christ and is responsible for tending to the health of the body. In verse 26, we read that “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” There has been so much suffering in the Body of Christ as a consequence of sexual abuse and the unjust response to that abuse; the whole body has been wounded in a deep way, even if not all members have been paying attention to that wound. So, as a member of this Body, I am responsible for attending to the suffering. I cannot brush this off as someone else’s job. I believe everyone involved with Awake shares a core conviction that we are co-responsible for the mission of the Church and therefore, we are called by God to do our part to work for transformation and healing.

Dr. Knight, thank you so much for this opportunity to share my story and the work of Awake Milwaukee with Profiles in Catholicism! I am grateful for your effort in drawing attention to this important issue in our Church.

If anyone is interested in joining Awake in our mission, I would encourage you to add your name to our Open Letter to Survivors, sign up for our email newsletter and blog, follow our Facebook page, and reach out to me at saralarson@awakemilwaukee.org if you would like to connect. Thank you!

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