Catholic anti-sex abuse group Awake Milwaukee is pushing for change


When a group of local Catholics decided to expand their advocacy work outside of a Whitefish Bay saloon, they had to come up with a name for their new organization.

They settled on “Awake Milwaukee”.

As Catholics who wanted to push for change on the issue of sexual abuse within the church, the name represented their own views as well as what they hoped to do for others.

“We felt like we were finally awake. We were finally paying attention to something that had been there all along,” the general manager said. Sara Larson. “That’s also what we aim to do for our wider community: to help people wake up to this reality.”

The philosophy of the group is that although the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has come a long way in fight against clergy abuse, more can be done to support survivors and increase transparency. The group also recently released a list of recommended changes.

Awake is unique among most anti-clergy sex abuse groups because its leaders are practicing Catholics who want to stay in the church and see it improve.

“Real change and structural change can only come from within, when the laity really speaks up and says we’re not comfortable with where this is,” said Patty Ingrilli, board member of administration of Awake.

A spokeswoman for the archdiocese said the church had implemented strict policies to prevent abuse, worked with survivors and provided anti-child abuse training to 100,000 people.

“No organization in the United States has done more than the Catholic Church when it comes to addressing sexual abuse and integrating prevention measures throughout the organization,” said the director of the communications Sandra Peterson.

“It’s about listening first”

A lifelong Catholic with a degree in theology, Larson was working at a local parish in 2018 when two pieces of news hit her like a “punch in the stomach” and caused her to pay attention to the abuse crisis. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick has been removed from office over allegations of child sexual abuse, and the sprawling Pennsylvania grand jury report has been released, detailing the widespread abuse and cover-up.

Previously, Larson believed in a narrative she thinks is common among Catholics: Sexual abuse in the church “happened a long time ago, and when we found out, we fixed it, and now it It’s time for us to move on.”

Within a year, Larson had immersed herself in researching the crisis, hosting other local Catholics in her home for discussions on the issue, and launching Awake Milwaukee.

The group’s first action was an open letter to survivors, apologizing for the abuse they suffered and for the “many ways your abuse was ignored, minimized and covered up”. Dozens of local Catholics, including priests and deacons, signed.

Most of the group’s founders were not abuse survivors or close family or friends of survivors. But they were people of faith who cared.

“We were people who maybe had been part of the problem by not caring enough about it, not learning and acting sooner,” Larson said.

Ingrilli, a Catholic from Brookfield who had served as president of her parish council, got involved because it was important to raise her three sons in the church, she said.

“I needed the Catholic Church to be a safer place than I thought it was,” she said.

Awake has four areas of focus: education, prayer, advocacy, and survivor support.

Educating “Catholics in the pews” about “the full reality of sexual abuse” in the church is key, Larson said. Awake maintains a blog and regularly hosts round tables with survivors and experts.

It has been painful that some Catholics do not support Awake’s mission, she said.

“We really think the lack of understanding is a big part of the problem,” she said.

Awake also runs support groups for survivors of clergy abuse. The virtual groups have drawn survivors from across the United States and Canada, Larson said. Not all have experienced abuse within the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Most survivors stayed in the church and sought a place to speak honestly about the crisis while remaining “rooted in faith and hope,” Larson said.

“People want to be heard and they want to be believed. It’s the foundation of everything we do,” Larson said. “It’s about listening first.”

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List of recommendations compiled by the group

Awake recently released a list of recommended policy changes for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

Among the recommendations: publish an online list of all priests credibly accused of abuse in the archdiocese, including visiting priests and those from religious orders – the current list includes only diocesan priests; publish half-yearly reports detailing the work of two supervisory boards; and recognize the sexual abuse of adults, not just children, in Archdiocesan documents.

Each recommendation includes a rationale for why Awake leaders believe it should be implemented, as well as examples of dioceses that have implemented it.

“We really wanted to focus on things that, from what we understand, are very possible,” Larson said.

While some changes may seem minor, they can have a big impact on survivors, Larson said. Take the suggestion to list all accused priests credibly online.

She says an average parishioner would likely make little distinction between a diocesan priest and, say, a priest who was ordained in the Archdiocese of Chicago but worked in a church in Milwaukee.

A survivor “might go up and say, ‘My abuser is not on this list,'” Larson said.

And while the so-called external priests and clerics aren’t directly accountable to the Archbishop of Milwaukee, “it’s just a really good way to increase transparency on the full extent of the abuses that have happened in our archdiocese,” Larson said.

The Archdiocese says it does not list external and religious priests because it has no way of knowing key details of the abuse allegations against these priests and how they were investigated. . “There is also no certainty that the Archdiocese would be informed of the allegations against every priest who has worked at any given time in the Archdiocese,” the statement read.

Another of Awake’s recommendations is to be more public about the work of two lay-led oversight boards, which provide guidance to the archdiocese on its clergy abuse policies and whether people are fit to serve. in the ministry.

In response to a reporter’s question about the recommendation, the archdiocesan spokeswoman said the community advisory board includes survivors of abuse, victim advocates, professional psychologists and therapists, and members. law enforcement.

The council meets regularly and “serves as an instrument of education and vigilance and an avenue of archdiocesan accountability to the wider community,” Peterson said.

The recommendation to extend child victim protection to adults is particularly important to Larson. It is not just children who are vulnerable to power differentials, she said: women in religious orders, adult seminarians and lay leaders also suffer from sexual abuse.

“I’ve come to believe that adult abuse in the church is happening on a very large scale today and is still extremely mishandled by the church,” Larson said.

Awake Milwaukee did not receive a response after sharing the recommendations with archdiocesan officials.

“I hope they can at least see that the recommendations have merit and that even if they don’t respond to us directly, it just makes them think,” Ingrilli said.

Ingrilli led a campaign last year to ask the archdiocese to ban the liturgical music of David Haas, a widely known contemporary composer who has been accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women. Officials did not respond. The decision whether or not to play Haas songs rests with the individual parishes.

In response to a reporter’s questions about the lack of response to Awake leaders, Jerry Topczewski, the archdiocese’s chief of staff, released a statement:

“We are always open to feedback from professionals regarding the Church’s extensive and ongoing efforts to assist those who have been victims of clergy sexual abuse of minors, while remaining vigilant in our efforts to prevent abuse and safe environment.”

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Catholicism ‘is part of the fabric of my life’

Though they find little traction with archdiocesan officials, Awake’s leaders remain committed to their cause as well as their faith.

This has not been easy.

“I had no idea, when I said yes to this, how heartbreaking it would be,” Larson said. “The depth of pain and the depth of hurt that is still present in the church is just not something that I understood.”

For Ingrilli, the group’s work has been personal. She found her great-uncle’s name on the list of credibly accused priests in the Diocese of Green Bay. His priest working in his hometown parish in Kiel, a Salvatorian from the Diocese of Buffalo, was also accused of abuse but was not removed from his post until decades later.

The findings galvanized her to make a difference in the church. She had no plans to leave him.

“It’s part of the fabric of my life. It’s really who I am. I can’t imagine not having it,” Ingrilli said.

Ultimately, Ingrilli hopes Awake’s work will cause enough change that people who have left the church will feel comfortable enough to return.

It’s her way of evangelising, she says.

Contact Sophie Carson at (414) 223-5512 or [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @SCarson_News.


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