Survivor Story: Kateri Lirio

“The hardest part was feeling that my church community didn’t fight for my heart.”

Kateri Lirio, 34, recently graduated with her Master of Arts in Teaching degree. She lives in Southern California and works as a teaching artist, a vocation that combines her love of education with her talents as a musician. She plays piano and ukulele, sings, and writes her own songs. She founded a virtual music studio and runs songwriting workshops for all ages. “Everyone is inherently creative,” Lirio says. “Everyone has a unique perspective. Songwriting is a way to talk about life.”

She is also interested in intergenerational learning or “how youth and adults can authentically connect with one another,” Lirio says. Committed to a life of service, she supports nonprofit organizations rooted in equity and diversity in the arts. She often offers her songwriting workshops to those living at the margins: people who are unhoused, survivors of domestic violence, and teens in juvenile detention.

Lirio remembers being a very happy child, charismatic and friendly. Today she loves being physically active. For fun, she enjoys hiking and Thai kickboxing, playing board games such as Settlers of Catan with friends, and meeting new people.

Awake: Kateri, what would you like to share about your abuse?

Kateri Lirio: I was abused by a family member beginning at age 6 and that set the stage for later instances of abuse, in my church community. I met the people who harmed me through music and youth ministry, which I worked in from ages 15 until 22. I was groomed to trust them. They were well-loved and respected in the community and so I also trusted them. However, when I turned 18, one of my abusers introduced me to porn and underage drinking and led me on by sending me text messages daily and being affectionate with me when we were alone. We were not dating. The second person was a volunteer minister who sent me inappropriate chat messages online. Both seemed so nice, offering me rides to and from church every week. My parents were getting a divorce at the time so they appreciated the help. I felt like I had no one to turn to except these “trusted people.”

Q. I’m so sorry that all of this happened to you, Kateri. Can you help us understand what has been the most difficult part of your journey as a survivor?

A. The hardest part was feeling that my church community didn’t fight for my heart. The relationships that I invested in for over a decade felt like a waste. The way the incident was handled broke my trust with the community and I ended up leaving the parish because I didn’t feel safe or that I would be protected. One man received a slap on the wrist and the other eventually left the parish, but neither of them was removed from ministry when I disclosed what happened. I think it was because I was already “of age” when the relationship became physical, but the psychological and emotional damage had already been done before I turned 18. I eventually left and that hurts the most. To this day, nobody from the ministry has apologized to me or done anything to make amends.

Q. This sounds truly painful. What has been the most useful in helping you heal?

A. As a result of the abuse I experienced from childhood into my adolescence, I live with the symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). So the emotionally and psychologically abusive situations in ministry left me very depressed and I had thoughts of suicide. I felt like what happened was my fault. It was difficult to regulate my emotions and I struggled to trust anyone who remotely reminded me of my perpetrators. I started to seek out therapy at a young age, scraping every dollar I could from my part-time work as a music teacher so I could talk to someone. Therapy is very expensive and my family comes from modest means so I learned to ask for sliding scale rates from providers. When I couldn’t afford private practitioners, I sought low-cost mental health services provided by the county. Over the course of my healing journey I’ve done talk therapy, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and sensorimotor therapy to help me regulate my emotions and thoughts. I also attend several support groups throughout the week to connect with others who have struggled with similar long-term effects. I’m happy to say that my depression is greatly diminished and I have lots of joy and love in my life again. Mild symptoms do come up occasionally but now I have tools and strategies to fight back against challenging moments.

Q. Kateri, can you tell us a little about your musical, “Psalms for Inside Times?”

A. It’s a semi-autobiographical musical that I wrote to help my healing. We were ready to perform it in April 2020, but due to the pandemic and the extended Shelter-at-Home order, I decided to postpone it. I recently received a grant to produce a proof of concept—a demo to show that the musical is developed for a full production—and I’m seeking investors to fully fund the entire project. I’ve only performed bits and pieces of it so far in local theater groups and community spaces. I notice it’s uncomfortable for the audience to sit through the excerpts I’ve performed because it’s frighteningly honest. But I didn’t make the musical for fame or for the masses. This was a way for me to heal and now I’m looking forward to sharing this with more survivors. The shame that survivors feel can be overwhelming. I want them to know that they are not alone.

Q. What have you learned that you think other victim-survivors might benefit from hearing?

A. I’ve learned a lot about power dynamics and control. Abusive people sometimes select their victim because that person has attributes the abuser wants. Instead of finding it within themselves, they try to control and gaslight the victim instead. When someone feels they are powerless over a person or situation, they will try to control that situation or person.

Q. Kateri, what makes you feel strong?

A. I took up muay thai—Thai kickboxing—10 years ago and it saved my life. When I first started it, I had so many emotional ups and downs. I didn’t know how to channel my feelings, but muay thai helped keep me balanced. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with the sport. For me, martial arts is not about hurting another person or “beating someone up.” It is about self-mastery and discovery. When I’m punching, kicking, or sparring, I focus on emotional regulation and stay present to the task at hand. This sport has helped me find an inner strength that I didn’t know I had. I learned how to fight for my own heart. I have a lot of fun doing it now and it’s not so much about channeling overwhelming emotions. It’s often the highlight of my day.

Q. That sounds awesome, Kateri. I’m tremendously grateful to you for sharing your story with us. As we wrap up, what’s one important idea that you would like Catholics to understand about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church?

A. At the end of the day, most devout Catholics seem to choose protecting the Church over the victim-survivor. Please don’t be the person who fails to stand up for the victim. That vulnerable person needs good people in their corner. Someday the vulnerable person could be your child, your friend, or even you. Wouldn’t you want someone to speak up?

—Interview by Erin O’Donnell

Note from Awake Milwaukee: We extend heartfelt thanks to Kateri Lirio for sharing her story. We also want to acknowledge that every survivor’s path is different. We honor the journeys of all survivors and are committed to bringing you their stories. We encourage you to read our previous Survivor Stories from Michael Koplinka-Loehr and Kathryn Walczyk.

If you have experienced sexual abuse, you can receive support through the National Sexual Abuse Hotline, 800-656-4673, which operates 24 hours a day. In Milwaukee, you can contact one of the Aurora Healing Centers at 414-219-5555. If you seek support from the Catholic Church, contact the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s victim assistance coordinator at 414-758-2232. Also, Awake is always open to listening to and learning from survivors. If you would like to connect with us, we invite you to email Sara at saralarson@awakemilwaukee.org.

11 thoughts on “Survivor Story: Kateri Lirio

  1. Kateri, I was so moved by your story. Thank you for sharing. It is so important for people to hear of experiences like yours so that we can first acknowledge the great harm that has been done in the Church. I appreciate your call to action as well, so that we can all learn how to support survivors like you. I’m glad you have found avenues of hope and healing! Thank you again!

  2. Thank you, Kateri for sharing your story. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to do and my prayer is that it will help to change hearts. The gifts you share with the world will also change hearts and I hope help you on your healing journey. Though you and I will likely never meet, please know that you are not alone.

  3. Kateri, thank you for sharing so honestly and for calling for people to stand up for the victim rather than the church. This part touched me deeply as a survivor myself. You are doing amazing work. I have just begun to listen to, Psalms for Inside Times. Wow! Wonderful. Thank you for all you do for yourself and for the world.

  4. Kateri, thank you for sharing your story. It takes so much courage to be vulnerable in this way, but our Church needs to hear your story and those of others who have been abused. And I very much agree with you that as a Church we need to follow Christ’s example and stand with and encourage the most vulnerable among us, including abuse victims, rather than protecting the Church’s clerical institution (and any other institution) that allows abuse to happen. God bless you and may your healing continue. May many people see your musical! May our Church continue to heal. But there can be no reconciliation between those abused and their abusers without accountability. Thank you for what you have done and are doing to promote such accountability.

  5. Kateri , thank you for your courage in sharing your story and as a fellow victim-survivor I can relate to your depression and subsequent healing by searching for and finding your own inner strength. Being Church to one another means validating others experience and supporting them through healing. You have mine!

  6. Thank you for giving of yourself in so many ways – not only for sharing your story, but for all of the beautiful creative energy you give to our world. You are helping so many people. You have certainly helped me today. Your story has touched my heart and inspired me to continue to learn more, to support survivors, and lift up your voices. I will be sharing this with others. It is so good for the Church, the people of God, to hear you. May you experience continued healing.

  7. Kateri, I was very moved by your story. I am so sorry all that happened to you. It never should have, and it is certainly not your fault. I am grateful to hear that you have found pathways to healing, and that you are working to strengthen and support others. You are strong and courageous to work through all the adversity you faced. I love it that you are a musician and you have written a musical. I am sure it is very powerful and will validate the experience of others. I am also one who experienced abuse. I hear you…I see you. May grace and love surround and hold you in safety and the joy of life. Blessings and Gratitude to you.

  8. The Peace of Jesus Christ be with you, Kateri! What a courageous thing you did to share this very sensitive and personal story. Your story is very important for pastors and lay ministers in the church to hear, and thank you for helping me stay alert as I work with adult volunteers and our children. You are in my prayers today- for continued healing, courage as you share your story, and most of all, that you continue to let the Light of Christ shine in the work you do. God Bless You!

  9. Kateri, I am in awe of your resilience and bravery. I am so, so sorry this happened to you. I, for one, would very much like to experience your musical. I am sure i will need a box of tissues. Your story resonates with me. I will keep you and all survivors in my prayers. From the mind of one survivor to another. God bless and keep you. Zac Zepeda

  10. Dear Kateri, thank you so much for sharing your story and your journey. I am so sorry you were harmed, and especially sorry that the people you turned to for help didn’t “fight for your heart,” as you say. That is just such a serious betrayal. I loved hearing about your experiences with muay thai. How great to do something that expresses all the joy and strength of your body and your spirit! I hope the path ahead will bring you more and more joy, strength, and peace each day.

  11. It is so important that these horrors be noted, in fact, proclaimed publicly. Awareness is absolutely critical. That said, the courage needed to do so is great. You are brave, Kateri, and we are blessed, yes, blessed, that you have graced us with your story of resilience and hope.

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