By Patty Ingrilli
Awake Leadership Team
One of the questions that I am frequently asked about my involvement with Awake Milwaukee is “Why?” Why does a busy working mom of three boys feel so passionately about waking people up to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church? Given the demands of my life, why add this to my plate?
For me, this is personal. In January 2019, I was reviewing the Diocese of Green Bay’s list of the priests with substantiated allegations of the sexual abuse of a minor, to see if Loren Nyes, a priest from my old parish, was listed. He was a Salvadorian who had been removed from ministry due to abuse. I was extremely angry to see that his name wasn’t included, not because he hadn’t sexually abused a minor, but because he was a priest from a religious order and the abuse took place in another diocese.
As I continued reading the list, another name jumped out at me. This time it was Alphonso Wagner, my great uncle, the man who was my dad’s godfather. I sat there, stunned, as I read and reread the name and the history of ministry. He was listed with multiple substantiated allegations; he had frequently been moved between parishes. He eventually was placed on sick leave and moved to the Diocese of Davenport in Iowa for the eight years proceeding his death.
I was shocked. How could this be? How could someone who held such a place of honor in my family have sexually abused minors? I remembered my grandmother lovingly talking about her brother, Reverend Uncle. The cross that had been given to him at his orientation to the seminary was hanging over the entryway of my childhood home to bless us as we came and went. I called my mom to confirm: was this really my Dad’s uncle? Maybe it was just someone else with the same name.
But my mom confirmed that it was indeed my great-uncle. She shared that my dad had the same terrible surprise as my great-uncle’s history wasn’t known within our family. In fact, my dad said that he was glad that Grandma had passed away, as this news about her brother would surely have killed her.
Reckoning With Reality
Like my dad, I was devastated by the news about my great uncle’s actions. I never knew him personally; he died before I was born, but he had lived on in my grandma’s stories, which conflicted with this new information. I had known that abuse by priests was present in the Catholic Church, but honestly, this was the first time I’d stopped to consider how the victims of abuse or their families felt. I was also filled with anger at my uncle’s supervisors. Why hadn’t they done more? How was the diocese just now releasing his name when the abuse had taken place decades before? Why had he been allowed to remain a priest and merely change dioceses?
Over the next few months, I began reading about the abuse crisis and struggled with how the Catholic Church had responded. There was no large uprising of priests angry with their fellow priests over the abuse. And the bishops seemed to simply move priests around like pawns as soon as cases of abuse popped up. As a practicing Catholic, I had heard about the abuse, but I never really thought about the cover-up.
A few months later, Sara Larson (now the executive director of Awake Milwaukee) posted on the Milwaukee Catholic Mamas Facebook page that she was leading a small group discussion about the clergy abuse crisis. Sara’s message, that the group would be a safe space to speak honestly about the abuse crisis with other Catholics, hit a chord with me. I realized that I wasn’t alone in my anger about the crisis, but I hadn’t been able to find a group that was committed to reform and remaining Catholic. I didn’t know Sara but saw that we shared multiple friends, so I joined the group.
Our “homework” for the meetings was listening to sections of the “Deliver Us” podcast. During that period I was on a business trip with a very delayed flight and ended up sitting in an airport for hours, listening to the entire podcast all at once. One of the survivor stories I heard there was like a light bulb moment for me, forcing me to recognize how many individuals may have helped enable the abuse. I was full of emotion by the time I landed in Milwaukee. The podcast opened me up to the idea that the abuse crisis wasn’t in the past, and that we as Catholics all need to be part of the solution. The victims’ lives, and their families’ lives, had been forever changed. I was struck by how the survivors were met with disbelief. I was embarrassed to be part of a Church that had paid out settlements but didn’t really seem to care about helping survivors and their families. I was angered by how many people turned a blind eye to the abuse.
After the group sessions concluded, I realized that I still had a core of anger inside of me. I knew that I could either let that anger fester and take over, or I could harness that anger for positive change. I began to see that although the abuse was done by others to others, it impacts us all as members of the Body of Christ. We all need to be aware of what happens in our parishes and to continue to be vigilant about the safety of our children. There will always be more that we can do to end the abuse and cover-up that has plagued the Catholic Church.
Being involved in Awake Milwaukee is one way for me take my anger toward the leadership of the Catholic Church and move it to positive action. I’ve learned about the need to hear the voices of survivors, to recognize that abuse can happen anywhere, and to constantly improve our safe environment training. And I am always thinking about how we can stop the enablers, the people who allowed men like my great-uncle to continue down his path.
Patty Ingrilli works in finance. She and her husband and three sons (pictured above) are members of St. Joseph Parish in Wauwatosa, where she has served on parish council and currently chairs the Home and School fundraiser. She wants to help the Catholic Church fully acknowledge the pain and hurt caused by the abuse crisis so it can focus on bringing Christ to others.