Awake’s Commitment to Understanding the Full Reality of Abuse in Adulthood

By Sara Larson
Awake Leadership Team

Last week’s blog post offered two expert perspectives on the phenomenon of sexual abuse of adults in the Catholic Church. Today, I would like to speak about this issue on a more personal level.  

When I was first becoming aware of the problem of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, my focus was primarily on those who had been abused as children and teens. We have heard these stories over and over in the news, and there is something particularly heart-wrenching about the image of an innocent child targeted by a sexual predator.

However, as I dove deeper into learning about this subject in 2018, I became increasingly aware of the sexual abuse of adults taking place in the Church, both in years past and in the present day. We all know the story of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose abusive behavior victimized both minors and adults, including seminarians who felt they were completely under his power. Over time, I have learned that the McCarrick scandal is only the tip of the iceberg, as more and more survivors come forward to share their stories of being harassed, groped, assaulted, and raped during their adult years, by clergy and other religious leaders. 

Through my work with Awake, as well as my personal blog and ministry, In Spirit and Truth, I have come to know many victim-survivors who have experienced abuse in adulthood. Many of these survivors are women in their 20s and 30s who had a deep faith that has been utterly devastated by their abuse. Almost all of these women have felt misunderstood, shunned, and rejected by the Church that they love. As I have grown to know and love these women, the issue that was once distant is now deeply personal for me. 

I appreciate that our entire Awake community is committed to facing the full reality of sexual abuse in the Church, because that means grappling with not only the horrific abuse of children, but also the devastating abuse of adults. 

In our efforts to listen to and walk with survivors of abuse, we’ve heard heartbreaking stories of adults who have been wounded and then largely ignored, doubted, or even pushed away by institutional leadership and the people in the pews. We are grateful that one of these victim-survivors agreed to share a few thoughts with our community.

Reflections from a Victim-Survivor

“Society and the Church find adult survivors more blameworthy, as if this was somehow mutual,” says “Anne” (not her real name), a victim-survivor in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee who was sexually assaulted by a deacon in the 1990s. She asked to remain anonymous because some members of her family do not know about the assault. “The thinking is that if they’re adults, there must be a consensual aspect to this.”

The culture of victim-blaming silences many victims. “You know that you’re going to be judged or blamed, and that people aren’t going to believe you,” Anne says. “Most people just can’t believe that a member of the clergy would do something like this. It makes you guarded about what you say, and the inability to talk about what happened causes great personal and emotional harm.”

Anne feels that survivors of abuse in adulthood have been consistently overlooked in efforts to heal the Church. She thinks back to the early 2000s, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee first established the Victim Assistance Coordinator role; the position was designed specifically to aid people “abused as minors.” Even today, archdiocesan materials that address abuse often refer exclusively to victims “abused as minors.”

“There have even been prayers at Mass for people abused by clergy ‘as a minor,’” Anne notes.  “It’s a slap in the face every time, like your abuse doesn’t count or isn’t important.”

Committed to Working for Safety for All

With people like Anne in mind, Awake is committed to advocating for change in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee to ensure that every person can be safe in the Church and that all instances of sexually abusive behavior are handled with the seriousness they deserve, whether the victim is a child, teenager, or adult. We have already explained some of our concerns regarding how allegations of abuse of adults are handled in our Archdiocese, and this is one of the key areas our Advocacy Working Group will be pursuing in the coming months. 

In the meantime, we invite our fellow Catholics to open their hearts to those who have experienced abuse as adults, to acknowledge the depth of this suffering, and to move away from a culture of victim-blaming into true Christian compassion.

If you have personally experienced sexual abuse as an adult, please know that Awake is always open to hearing from you, so that we may better accompany victim-survivors on their healing journey and more knowledgeably advocate on their behalf. We hear you, we believe you, and we are committed to walking with you.

Sara Larson studied theology at Marquette University, worked in parish ministry for eight years, and is a member of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Milwaukee.

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