Behind the Scenes of Awake’s Open Letter to Survivors

By Sara Larson
Awake Leadership Team

When members of the Awake Leadership Team began meeting in the spring of 2019, we wanted to make sure our first step as an organization clearly conveyed who we are and why we’re undertaking this work.

This is how our Open Letter to Survivors was born. We decided to publicly launch this ministry the same way that it began in our hearts: with sorrow and compassion and a desire to support those who have experienced abuse in our Church.

Our intention was to write a letter that honestly recognized the horrors that survivors have experienced, both in their abuse and in the way that they were often treated by the Church. We wanted to say “we care” and even more, “we’re listening.” It’s easy to point fingers at church leaders who mishandled abuse allegations in so many ways over the years, but it also felt important to acknowledge our own culpability in this sin. We wanted to take responsibility for our own lack of attention to this issue over the years. Most of all, we hoped that something in these words might feel meaningful or healing to at least one person who has suffered abuse in our Church.

The Challenge of Choosing The RIght Words

We learned a lot while writing this letter, including how difficult it is to choose the right words for such a sensitive topic. We learned even more when we sent a draft to a small group of survivors we’d been in dialogue with. While all were very supportive, they also helped us see a few of our blind spots. For example, in our original draft, we used the words “for what we have done and what we have failed to do,” thinking this familiar language from the Catholic liturgy added gravitas to our statement. However, one survivor pointed out that this type of language could be triggering for someone who has experienced abuse in a Catholic context, so we removed that phrase. Another survivor asked us to add the phrase “pray with you” into our promise to “welcome you, listen to you, and work together,” and another pushed us to use more challenging language when discussing betrayal by church leaders.

After making modifications based on this feedback, we said a little prayer and hit “publish” on our letter on August 21, 2019. 

Since that date, 232 people have signed our Open Letter to Survivors. The letter has gathered signatures from California to New York and everywhere in between, but the vast majority of signatories—151—are Catholics from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. We have been grateful to see not only lay people, but also priests and deacons willing to add their names. Some survivors have even added their signatures as a sign of solidarity with this effort. 

Survivors Respond

As soon as the letter was published, we began receiving responses from survivors. One young woman from out of state offered this reply: “This letter is beautiful. Thank you so much for writing it… It feels welcoming of my self and my story, and so hopeful.” A survivor on the East Coast shared these words of gratitude: “Thank you so much for sharing that letter. It is perfect and is exactly what victims need to hear in order to feel safe coming forward.”

Of course there are no perfect words that speak to every survivor, let alone every Catholic reading the letter. In our work, we have learned not to think of “survivors” as if they are one monolithic group, and responses to this letter reflect that. Some survivors appreciated the gentleness of our words, while others wished we had gone further in promising specific advocacy steps. One advocate replied with some anger: “Nowhere in this letter is there any call for accountability for all those who have engaged in the cover-up of known criminal sexual abusers.” 

Another long-time advocate appreciated the letter but pointed out that we did not use the word “crimes” anywhere in the text, which we agree is a particularly problematic omission. We didn’t feel it would be appropriate to change the letter after having collected so many signatures, but if we could do it all again, we would certainly be clear that we recognize sexual abuse as not only a sin, but also a crime.

Although this letter is not perfect, we are grateful that it has struck a chord with so many, and we hope it will continue to reach more people in the coming months.

We believe the letter was the right way to begin our ministry, but we also recognize that words are not enough. We have every intention of backing up these words with concrete and sustained action in solidarity with survivors. We understand one survivor’s cautious reaction to our letter: “I have heard empty words before.” We look forward to showing her that this letter is just the beginning.

Have you Signed?

If you have already signed the Open Letter to Survivors, thank you!  Please know that your support makes a difference. We hope you will consider sharing the letter with others and inviting your friends, family, and fellow parishioners to join you in signing.

If you have not signed yet, I encourage you to add your name today. We hope to see the list grow to 300 or 500 signatures—or even more!—so that survivors will see the names of many, many Catholics offering words of compassion and support. Still not sure your signature makes a difference? Take encouragement from a survivor in the Southwest who offered this simple response upon reading our letter: “All those names are so powerful to read through. Thank you.”

2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes of Awake’s Open Letter to Survivors

  1. I add my name, Pat Neuenfeldt, to the letter to survivors of sexual abuse. To have the witness to pain that this letter symbolizes is powerful. I just became aware of the letter and have worked to give name to the clergy abuse in our church and to stand strong to demand an action to own the problem by all that have been involved as well as to hear the strong voices of women, children and men whose lives have been etched deeply by what they endured, often alone or in silence. Our daughter, Jennifer died when she was 17 as a result of a pedophile’s horrific attack. With her spirit we join your strength in healing from pain.

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