March 5, 2024 | National & World News
Fr. Stephen Van Lal Than

Sara Larson, pictured in an undated photo, is executive director of the nonprofit Awake. Based in Milwaukee, the independent Catholic organization works to support survivors and educate Catholics on the issue of sexual abuse within the church. On Jan. 23, 2024, Awake announced it has embraced a new, nationally focused mission. (OSV News photo/Awake)

National group Awake: ‘All God’s people deserve to be safe in church,’ not just kids


(OSV News) — The Catholic Church in the U.S. has made “real progress in protecting children today from abuse,” but “unfortunately, this is just not true for adults,” a leading Catholic survivor advocate told OSV News.

“I think we need to begin by admitting that this is a serious problem, and deciding as a church that all of God’s people deserve to be safe in the church, no matter their age,” said Sara Larson, executive director of the nonprofit Awake.

Based in Milwaukee, the independent Catholic organization works to support survivors and educate Catholics on the issue of sexual abuse within the church.

Awake recently announced it has embraced a new, nationally focused mission, one that offers “a needed voice in the public conversation about abuse in the Catholic Church,” while continuing “the work that still needs to be done to build a Church that is transparent, accountable, and safe for all,” said Larson in the organization’s Jan. 23 news release.

Launched as Awake Milwaukee in March 2019 — following a wave of clerical abuse scandals the previous year, including that involving the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — the group’s early members initially met in person and at small local events. During online meetings amid COVID-19 restrictions, the organization began to attract a wider audience, especially through its “Courageous Conversations” and “Survivor Circles” series. The group also held two June 2022 sessions contributing to the U.S. stage of the ongoing Synod on Synodality convened by Pope Francis.

Now, the lay-led Awake, funded largely by individual donations, has launched a new website at, and looks to expand its array of education, advocacy, prayer and survivor resources, which Larson said are more critical than ever.

“I think that most Catholics would be shocked with the prevalence of abuse of adults in the church today, and unfortunately, there are very few safeguards in place to protect adults from abuse by religious leaders,” Larson told OSV News. “And when abuse does happen, victims are often blamed, shamed and ignored, while their abusers are left free to continue to harm others.”

Part of the issue is a lack of seeing both the issue of abuse and the steps taken by the church to address it through the eyes of survivors, she said.

“Unless you’re really listening to the survivors who are engaging with these processes today, it’s easy to believe that these systems are working and that the problem is fixed,” Larson said. “I speak to so many abuse survivors who say that their experience reporting to the church was just as traumatic, and sometimes even more traumatic, than the abuse itself.”

Retraumatization has long been a widespread risk for sexual violence survivors who report abuse to medical, psychological and law enforcement professionals. Researchers have broadly called for a “trauma-informed approach” in reporting and treatment, so that survivors can recount their experiences in a supportive environment. Trauma-informed approaches also can help to prevent abuse, since survivors are more likely to report sexual violence if they know the process for doing so will not further wound them.

“No system is perfect,” Larson admitted. “And the reality is that speaking about traumatic events can be very painful and triggering, but … it can be an empowering process for a survivor to speak the truth, and to be heard and received with compassion.”

Larson said she would “like to see we as a church … start by really listening, by having an awareness of trauma and how trauma works, and how that might impact someone’s experience and the way they speak about it — and to really treat this person not as a liability or a threat, but as a loving child of God.”

“Clear, compassionate systems in place for adults to report abuse by priests and other Catholic leaders” are essential, said Larson.

“These systems have to be facilitated by people with sensitivity to trauma and an understanding of the power dynamics involved in adult abuse,” she said.

Awake has a “desire to be really survivor-centered,” and to “make sure that when people are engaging with abuse survivors, that they’re ready for that and have the training and an approach that’s not going to cause additional harm,” said Larson.

The language of that approach is crucial, she stressed.

“We need to get rid of the demeaning label ‘vulnerable adults,’ and recognize that all people can be vulnerable to abuse at particular times and in particular situations,” said Larson.

Such abuse also inflicts deep spiritual wounds, which is why Awake seeks to accompany survivors struggling with “religious trauma” from abuse within the church, Larson said.

She said she has seen “so many survivors work so hard to disentangle their abuser and the things he or she said or did or the way that spirituality was used — disentangle that from their own spiritual life, their own understanding of God and for some their own relationship with the church.”

Larson pointed out that often “the spiritual element of abuse twists those things together in such a way that it can be really, really difficult to see God, to encounter the sacraments, to experience yourself as loved by God without having the abuser’s voice coming through that.”

Some survivors find themselves having to “take a spiritual path outside of the Catholic Church,” she said, while others have “found a way to heal within the church.”

“Those are individual sacred journeys” of “seeking (one’s) spiritual center after having that abused and manipulated by someone who claimed to represent God,” said Larson.

Remaining “grounded in this belief” that every survivor “matters to God (and) matters to us, and (that) the way we treat them matters” will enable the Catholic Church to better address and prevent abuse, she said, adding, “If we care about each human being as a beloved child of God, we have to choose to make this a priority.”

Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News.

To learn more about Awake, visit

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