After Awake Milwaukee hosted two synod sessions in June to ensure that abuse survivors, their loved ones, and concerned Catholics had a voice in the global listening initiative of the Catholic Church, we submitted our report to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s synod team. Awake’s complete synod report is available on our website.
Today we’re happy to share some small signs that synod leaders at the local, national, and global level have read and reflected on the words and ideas shared by people in the Awake community.
For example, a representative of the USCCB synod team responded to the Awake report by noting “how honored and privileged we are to bear witness to the sacred stories of those who participated in Awake Milwaukee listening sessions.” More on this below.
Update on the Synod Process
But first it’s important to mention Pope Francis’s surprise announcement on October 16 that he is extending the Synod on Synodality, or listening initiative that was originally due to culminate in the Synod of Bishops in Rome in October 2023. The pope has added an additional year and a second session of the Synod of Bishops, to be held in October 2024. “The fruits of the synodal process underway are many, but so that they might come to full maturity, it is necessary not to be in a rush,” Pope Francis said.
One of the Vatican’s stated goals for the Synod on Synodality is to engage and listen to people who have been marginalized in the Church.
On October 27, the Vatican issued a key working document summarizing all the synod reports it received—from 112 bishops conferences as well as religious congregations, lay-led groups like Awake, and individuals. This recent summary, known as the “Document for the Continental Stage,” is about 45 pages long and designed to guide conversation in the next phase of the synod process. “It is not a conclusive document because the process is far from being finished,” the report explains.
Dioceses around the world have been asked to read the document and discuss its findings. Representatives will likely gather regionally and then for continent-wide meetings before bishops meet next October.
Sexual Abuse Addressed in the “Document for the Continental Stage”
As Awake leaders read through the Vatican document, we were heartened to find that it does give attention to the problem of sexual abuse in the Church. In a section about “the scandal of abuse by members of the clergy or by people holding ecclesial office,” the document refers to abuse as “an open wound that continues to inflict pain on victims and survivors, on their families, and on their communities.”
The report continues:
“Careful and painful reflection on the legacy of abuse has led many synod groups to call for a cultural change in the Church with a view to greater transparency, accountability and co-responsibility.”
This language certainly reflects the experience of Awake and the contribution we submitted from our own synodal conversations with abuse survivors and others who care about this issue.
We are also grateful for the document’s recognition that survivors of abuse are often excluded from society and from Christian community. One of the key themes in Awake’s synod report was “the continued marginalization and silencing of survivors.” We asked readers of Awake’s report to remember that “behind these words are real people with names, faces, and stories that are important to our Church – and to our God.”
“I was glad to see our words reflected in the Vatican document, which acknowledges these marginalized groups as ‘people with faces and names, calling for solidarity, dialogue, accompaniment, and welcome,’” says Awake Executive Director Sara Larson. But she also believes that the Vatican summary has something significant missing: “a recognition of the deep harm that is caused not just by the abuse itself, but by the ongoing institutional betrayal of those who have experienced abuse.”
“We hear over and over from survivors that the way they have been treated by Church leaders after coming forward has been just as painful and traumatizing as the abuse itself,” Larson says, “and I would like to see greater recognition of this continuing reality.”
“We are grateful for the vulnerability, authenticity, and courage from victims and survivors as our companions on the Synodal Path.”Julia McStravog, USCCB consultant
Hopeful Themes from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee
Awake Milwaukee shared its synod report with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and elements of our report appeared in the archdiocesan synthesis document that summarized key themes gathered through listening sessions held across the region. The archdiocese’s synthesis was sent to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The Archdiocese’s themes were drawn from an online survey, listening sessions in parishes and on college campuses, meetings conducted in Spanish, and some sessions devoted to hearing from Black Catholics. The listening processes also involved one-on-one meetings with Catholics and non-Catholics. Overall, 1,842 people took part in the listening process, which was guided by Susan McNeil, director of synod implementation.
We were pleased to see that the tenth theme in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee synthesis was devoted specifically to sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The report said:
“A number of victim/survivors and their families took part in the local consultation process. Some say they have not healed from the abuse they suffered, and are not sure they ever will. Even if abuse occurred decades ago, victim/survivors describe feelings of pain, anger, shame, sadness, and isolation. Many describe feeling ignored or excluded in the Church, treated as a legal liability rather than as a beloved brother or sister in Christ who was deeply injured.” A number of victims/survivors and their families took part in the local consultation process. Some say they have not healed from the abuse they suffered, and are not sure they ever will. Even if abuse occurred decades ago, victim/survivors describe feelings of pain, anger, shame, sadness, and isolation. Many describe feeling ignored or excluded in the Church, treated as a legal liability rather than as a beloved brother or sister in Christ who was deeply injured.”
The synthesis also highlighted recommendations that appear in our report, including calls for greater accountability and transparency of Church leaders, deeper pastoral care for victim-survivors and their families, and trauma-sensitive training for priests and pastoral workers.
The fact that the concerns of victim-survivors were included in the Archdiocese’s report gives Awake’s leaders hope.
Encouraging Words from the USCCB
In addition to sending Awake’s report to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, we also sent it directly to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). At that level, the process is being led by Richard Coll, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for the USCCB, and Julia McStravog, USCCB synod consultant.
In response to our report, McStravog sent the following message to Awake Executive Director Sara Larson:
“I speak for Richard, myself, and the entire U.S. Synod Team when I say how honored and privileged we are to bear witness to the sacred stories of those who participated in Awake Milwaukee listening sessions. The synthesis from Awake Milwaukee has been taken up with prayerful discernment within our “Region XVI” synthesis process. We are grateful for the vulnerability, authenticity, and courage from victims and survivors as our companions on the Synodal Path.”
Such feedback gives us hope. But Awake’s biggest wish is that the process of listening to and learning from abuse survivors will lead to concrete action and deep transformation in our Church.
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog