Victim-Survivors Find Support, Joy in Awake’s New Survivor Circles

In September, Awake Milwaukee launched an important new ministry, Awake Survivor Circles. These online gatherings provide peer support for people wounded by sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Victim-survivors say these groups meet a vital need. Gigi, a survivor who asked that we use just her first name, says that after her diocese concluded the investigation of her sexual abuse by a priest in 2014, her pain was far from over. “There were many things that still needed healing long after that,” she explains. “I am very grateful to have come here.” Connecting with other survivors is especially comforting, Gigi adds: “This journey can be very lonely and depressing but meeting others that have gone through similar things makes me feel not as alone.”

Awake Executive Director Sara Larson saw a real need for the Survivor Circles. “More and more survivors were connecting with Awake through our Courageous Conversations series and our website,” she explains. “I’ve been having really beautiful individual conversations with survivors, but I also recognize that many survivors feel a longing for community with others who share those experiences.” Survivors tell her that even well intentioned friends, family members, and fellow parishioners often don’t “get it.” “There’s such comfort for people in connecting with others who just understand,” Larson says.

Awake currently offers four different circles: one for anyone who has experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, another for women only, and a third for people abused as adults. The fourth circle is designed for family and close friends of abuse survivors, sometimes referred to as “secondary survivors.”

Jerri von den Bosch, a member of the Awake Leadership Team, is especially passionate about the secondary survivor circle; her mother is a survivor of clergy abuse. “When Awake started this journey, we noticed that every survivor has at least one other person struggling along with them,” she explains. The parents, children, siblings, and close friends of victim-survivors often have a host of complicated feelings, which are rarely acknowledged by the Church or others. It can also be difficult to speak about these feelings knowing how much the survivor in their life has suffered.  “This circle provides a safe place to express anger, pain, hopelessness, and fear without worrying what our survivor would think,” von den Bosch says.

What Happens In Survivor Circle Gatherings?

Awake Survivor Circles are small, with 6 to 8 participants in each group. The same people meet monthly, creating a consistency that allows participants to get to know each other and build a  community of support. 

Larson stresses that the circles are not designed to take the place of psychotherapy. “Many survivors find healing in therapy and through the support of family and friends,” she says. “These gatherings can be another really important piece in people’s healing by connecting with others who share these experiences and allowing them to talk openly and honestly about them.”

The meetings include gentle prayer and sometimes incorporate discussions of spirituality and faith. Larson says she has heard from many victim-survivors who wanted a place to remain connected to their faith while also talking about their difficulties in the aftermath of abuse. “Awake’s groups are open to that kind of conversation,” she says, “but are also very accepting of wherever people are in their relationship with the Church, with God, with faith.” 

Gifts for Survivors—and the Broader Community

Larson says she has encountered unexpected gifts as the program has launched. In September, Awake’s leadership team invited members of the broader Awake community to share brief messages of support for people joining the Survivor Circles. 

Larson read these messages aloud during the first circle meetings. Some victim-survivors were moved to tears, knowing that others in the Catholic community were thinking of them, praying for them, and hoping that the meetings would offer comfort and healing. 

Larson also believes that it’s a gift for Catholics who are not survivors to know that they can reach out in this concrete way to support people who have been wounded by the Church, even if they never meet one another face-to-face. If you would like to offer a message of support with Survivor Circle participants, please add it here

Initial feedback suggests that the circles will indeed offer connection and healing. “My heart was overflowing with joy after just one circle,” says survivor Gina Barthel. “I immediately felt at home with the other women and Sara did a great job leading the discussion. While it is awful that we are connected by such hellish experiences, it is consoling to know that I am not alone. Other survivors can understand and empathize in a way others simply can’t and that’s healing and empowering.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Ready to Join a Survivor Circle?
Awake warmly welcomes survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church and their loved ones to join our Survivor Circles. To learn more about groups taking place this fall, please contact Sara Larson at saralarson@awakemilwaukee.org before October 22. New circles will open in January 2022.

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