Earlier this month, Awake Milwaukee hosted two synod sessions as part of the global listening initiative of the Catholic Church. We created our sessions to center the voices of women and men who have experienced sexual abuse by Catholic leaders. Called by Pope Francis, the Synod on Synodality is designed to “inspire people to dream about the Church we are called to be, to make hope flourish, stimulate trust, bind up wounds, build bridges, enlighten minds, warm hearts and restore strength to our hands.”
While the Vatican has encouraged Catholics to engage people who are often unheard or marginalized in the Church, Awake’s leaders were troubled to find few efforts to reach out to abuse survivors and include their voices in this discernment process. We also heard from victim-survivors in the Awake community who did not feel comfortable engaging in their parish or diocesan process because of the lack of sensitivity of many Catholic clergy and laity. In light of this reality, Awake decided to participate in the global synod process to lift up the voices of abuse survivors, as well as all who have been harmed by the ripple effects of sexual abuse and leadership failures in our Church. We believe that women and men who have experienced abuse by Catholic leaders are important prophetic voices in the Church today, speaking hard truths that the entire Body of Christ needs to hear; we see this synod process as an opportunity to bring their wisdom and expertise to the wider Church.
In Awake’s two “Synod Sessions,” held on Zoom, we used small group breakout rooms for listening and sharing, and welcomed 106 people from 38 Catholic dioceses. Forty-six participants identified themselves as having experienced sexual abuse by a Catholic leader. Summary reports from all Synod Sessions around the world are being sent this month to bishops’ conferences; they will be further summarized and shared with the Vatican.
Here we briefly summarize the ten themes we heard most often in our Synod Sessions, along with some quotes from participants. Awake’s complete synod report, which we submitted to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops this week, is available on our website here.
Theme One: Abuse is Happening Now
“My abuse began in 2018. I just don’t understand why they don’t tell the truth. It’s now. I need them to acknowledge that it’s now.”
Over and over, we heard abuse survivors and their loved ones speak about the pain they experience when Catholics talk about sexual abuse in the Church as if it is a problem of the past.
Theme Two: Deep and Long-Lasting Wounds
“I don’t think I have recovered [from my abuse] or ever will.”
Survivors described present-day feelings of pain, anger, sadness, shame, and post-traumatic stress, making it clear that even if abuse had occurred many years, even decades, in the past, the wounds experienced by survivors often feel fresh.
Theme Three: Continued Marginalization and Silencing of Survivors
“So many people in the Church push you away and don’t want to hear you.”
Many survivors in Awake’s Synod Sessions described feeling ignored, dismissed, and shunned by their church communities, while Catholics who wish to address this issue and offer support to victim-survivors said they feel alone in these efforts.
Theme Four: Betrayal and Violations of Trust
“I feel betrayed by the Church. It’s hard to trust the Church.”
Survivors and supporters spoke of a profound loss of trust in the Church, feelings that are often compounded by multiple experiences of betrayal over time.
Theme Five: The Ripple Effects of Abuse
“I went from being a devoted Catholic to one feeling betrayed and disillusioned by the abuse and cover-up.”
Many Synod Session participants spoke about the ways the issue of sexual abuse in the Church has affected them, despite not having personally experienced abuse.
Theme Six: Longing for the Church to Return to Its Roots
“I feel most connected to the people of the Church when we are together, serving each other, motivated by love and compassion, and guided by the question: What would Jesus do?”
Many participants stated that the problems of sexual abuse and cover up contradict the mission of the Church. Continued failures to adequately address ongoing issues, initiate effective reforms, and compassionately accompany survivors expose the reality of a Church far distant from its Gospel roots.
Theme Seven: Desires to Stay Connected or Reconnect with Faith
“I am separated from the Church but not from my God. But it is so painful to lose everything you believed. I just wish the Church would listen. I wish they would listen!”
The universal human need for connection with God, pathways for spiritual growth, and nurturing communities of faith echoed throughout our sessions; many participants conveyed a deep desire to remain connected with the Church, often despite great challenges. Others said they maintain a loose affiliation with the Church or seek connection and community elsewhere.
Theme Eight: Demands for Transparency and Accountability
“I want to see change. I need to see change. I don’t see it. I see platitudes and promises.”
We heard a common refrain: actions speak louder than words. Participants shared multiple stories of church leaders reacting to calls for change by referencing the reforms in place since 2002, without recognizing the need for increased transparency and accountability today.
Theme Nine: Calls to Embrace the Gifts of the Laity
“I have hope in the lay people of the Church, people who are willing to listen and show compassion.”
Along with disheartening stories of mistreatment by the Church, we also heard moving accounts of compassion and care provided by some Catholics, particularly lay people. Participants also expressed a desire for the Church to welcome the often-overlooked perspective of women in the Church.
Theme Ten: Appeals for Trauma Awareness and Training in the Church
“It feels like helping survivors like me should be part of the job of the clergy, but working with [the clergy] has been humiliating and disappointing.”
Abuse survivors shared multiple instances of church members failing to respond to them compassionately, inadvertently triggering past trauma, and in many cases causing further harm. Participants called for increased trauma awareness to make the Church a safer place for people who have experienced trauma of any kind.
The complete report that Awake Milwaukee submitted to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is available on our website.