During his homily for the second Sunday of Advent, Deacon Steve Przedpelski of the Family of Four Parishes in Milwaukee spoke about the work of prophets: “A prophet does God’s will or speaks God’s message,” he said. “In the process, the prophet tells us who God is and what God wants, and thus, who we are and how we can become fully human.”
“A prophet stands in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the marginalized,” he added, becoming a “voice for the voiceless.” He noted that during the Rite of Baptism, all Catholics are called to follow Christ and, like him, serve as “priest, prophet, and king.” This suggests that once baptized, Catholics are called to use their lives to bring God’s goodness, love and justice to the world.
Przedpelski then reflected on the work of contemporary prophets, specifically naming Sara Larson, executive director of Awake, for speaking with a prophetic voice. “She does this out of a calling,” he said. “She does this because her faith pushes her, because she has heard the cries of the poor, the broken, the harmed, and those who continue to suffer.”
His words rang true for members of the Awake Leadership Team, who chose Larson as Awake’s executive director because they recognized her tremendous gifts. “I have long felt that Sara is a modern-day example of the saints and prophets who have challenged, inspired, and rejuvenated the Church for millennia, and it was a welcome surprise to be watching Deacon Steve’s homily and hear his similar words,” says Sara Knutson, a member of the Awake Leadership Team. “I am so grateful for Sara’s work relating to the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, but even more grateful for her attentive listening for God’s voice and her responsiveness to where God’s voice leads her.”
Speaking the Truth
In a phone conversation a few weeks after he gave his homily, Przedpelski told Awake that he often hears Catholics express a desire to move on from the sex abuse crisis, but he believes Larson’s work provides important reminders that there’s still essential work to be done to heal the Church and make it safe for all. He mentioned recent news stories about students abused by clergy at St. Norbert Abbey in DePere, Wisconsin, and said stories of abuse will probably continue to emerge. “It’s good to help people acknowledge the problem, acknowledge their anger, their sadness, their frustration, and to [help them become] part of the solution in working toward healing and accountability.” He added that Larson is “not about tearing down the Church,” but that she is like St. Francis of Assisi, who heard a call from God to rebuild the Church.
Przedpelski understands the drive to speak the truth about painful realities. Since 2001 he has served as executive director of Franciscan Peacemakers, a Milwaukee-based organization that serves women who are sexually exploited and sexually trafficked. The organization offers street ministry and resources such as housing and mentoring for women ready to begin the recovery process, as well as a social enterprise that offers bar soaps, lotions, and bath products made by women in recovery. A significant part of Przedpelski’s work includes preaching at parishes in the city of Milwaukee and elsewhere in the state, educating the community and advocating for survivors. Like Larson, he sees the need for more compassionate support for people who have experienced the trauma of sexual abuse.
A Chorus of Prophetic Voices
Przedpelski and Larson are clearly not alone in calling out injustice and standing in solidarity with the marginalized. Many whistleblowers, survivors, and advocates have served as modern-day prophets, calling our attention to the twin crises of sexual abuse and leadership failures in the Church. The Advent season is a fitting time to pause and acknowledge some of the many prophetic voices calling us to this work of truth and love. Here are just a few of the prophets who offer inspiration to all of us at Awake.
Fr. Jim Connell. A retired priest who lives in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Connell served as vice chancellor for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, a role that involved reviewing sex abuse cases. In 2009 a group of victim-survivors held a press conference that criticized his oversight of one particular abuse case. This triggered an epiphany for Connell, who says that he had never before considered these cases from the victims’ perspective. He began talking to victims and convened a group of priests who provided pastoral support to victims and parishes in the aftermath of abuse. Connell, a canon lawyer, also sent an open letter to Pope Francis in 2014 requesting that the Vatican investigate the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s handling of abuse cases.
James Grein. One of the very first victim-survivors of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick to go public, Grein shared his story in the summer of 2018, when he reported the abuse to police and spoke with a reporter from the New York Times. McCarrick was a close friend of the family, who baptized Grein as a baby. Grein says the abuse began when he was 11 years old and continued for more than 20 years. He described how the trauma of the abuse led to his struggle with drug and alcohol addiction and the end of his marriage. Grein’s report likely helped build the case against McCarrick, who was laicized in February 2019. The Vatican’s investigation and the subsequent report were released in November.
Jennifer Haselberger. A canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, Haselberger discovered hundreds of documents showing the ongoing coverup of abuse there. After her efforts within the Archdiocese failed to force reform, Haselberger resigned in 2013 and took the information to Minneapolis Public Radio (MPR), which broadcast a major investigation of the abuse and leadership crisis in the Archdiocese.
Fr. Daniel Griffith. Now liaison for Restorative Justice and Healing for the Archdiocese of St. Paul & Minneapolis, Griffith was previously appointed delegate for safe environment in 2013, around the time that whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger went public with documents showing the ongoing coverup of abuse in the archdiocese. The following year Archbishop John Nienstedt was the subject of an internal investigation for sexual misconduct, which prompted Griffith to send a detailed memo to auxiliary bishops, describing efforts to quash the investigation as “a good old-fashioned cover-up to preserve power and avoid scandal.” Griffith recently spoke about the “insular clerical culture” that allows abuse to occur for Awake’s inaugural Courageous Conversation this month.
Siobhan O’Connor. While executive assistant for Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, O’Connor found a hidden binder detailing abuse by priests, some of whom were allowed to continue in parish ministry. When Malone released a list of 42 priests credibly accused of abusing minors, O’Connor knew the draft list had included more than 100 names. Taking heartbreaking calls from people who said they’d been abused led her to act. “What I was witnessing boggled my mind, broke my heart, and burdened my soul,” O’Connor wrote in a 2018 essay in the journal First Things. “With each passing week, my conscience felt as if it were in an ever-tightening vise … I began to realize that God had placed me in the right place at the right time, and that He would grant me the strength to do the right thing.” She anonymously leaked documents to local media in 2018 before leaving her job. After a public outcry, Malone resigned in December 2019.
The Women Who Reported Abuse by David Haas. This past spring, a woman contacted Into Account, a small organization that supports survivors of sexual violence in Christian contexts, alleging that she had been abused by popular Catholic composer David Haas. After that first report, a growing number of women contacted Into Account saying that they also were abused. Into Account went public with the allegations; to date, the organization has received 44 different reports, available here. Additionally, a group of victim-survivors and a former colleague of Haas have contacted 174 dioceses in the United States, asking them to stop using Haas’s music during liturgies because it can be re-traumatizing to sexual abuse survivors.
Our work at Awake is inspired by people like these, who made brave decisions to speak up. Each of us received the same baptismal call to be a prophet, and we encourage fellow Catholics to consider: how might you, too, join the chorus of prophetic voices?
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog
Note: Don’t miss Awake Milwaukee’s next Courageous Conversation, 7pm CST on Thursday, January 21. The topic is The Women Who Spoke Out: A Survivor, A Colleague, and an Advocate Share Their Story of Exposing David Haas’s Abuse. Register here.