Awake Announces Newly Expanded Survivor Advisory Panel 

Listening to survivors has always been a priority for Awake Milwaukee.

In our earliest days, before we had even chosen the name “Awake,” we gathered in Sara and Mike Larson’s living room in Milwaukee to listen to a woman who was abused by a priest in grade school. This survivor described her hard work to heal and the pain she experienced as an adult, when she faced legalistic Church leaders in her efforts to report her abuser, who remained in ministry. Listening to her was a powerful experience, reinforcing our drive to learn more about the problems of abuse and cover-up in the Church, to work for transformation and healing, and to understand how we might walk with abuse survivors.

Since then, Awake has continued to keep the perspectives of abuse survivors at the center of our mission, and we are always looking for new ways to listen to and learn from the wisdom of those who have experienced sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. We’re pleased to announce that we have expanded our Survivor Advisory Panel to include 14 survivors from around the United States.

The panel is designed to offer honest feedback about Awake’s ideas, programs, and goals. We realize that not every Awake initiative will resonate with every survivor, but we consider the input of those with lived experience essential to the decisions we make in carrying out our mission. Our panel includes women and men, lay people and clergy, Catholics and non-Catholics, those who were abused during childhood and those who experienced abuse as adults.

We are honored to introduce our panelists, with their permission. We are grateful for the gift of their presence in the Awake community.

Bill Kessenich

I am a retired manufacturing executive, father of six adult children and grandfather to 14 grandchildren. I spent 10 years in Catholic seminary in Milwaukee and at the Catholic University in Washington, D. C., at which time I was abused by my spiritual director for six years in high school and college. I live in Wisconsin and remain a faithful Catholic. I am involved with Awake Milwaukee as a Board member, donor, and participant in an effort to bring greater awareness of the ongoing abuse of power in the Church. I hope to work for needed reform.

Cathy Drake

I am a lifelong Catholic who was born and raised in New Jersey. I have worked for and volunteered in the Church for many years, including in youth ministry where I have assisted in coordinating youth retreats and mission trips to Appalachia. Now I coordinate religious education as well as the parish RCIA process for adults becoming Catholic or confirming their Catholic faith. Truly, the Lord has blessed me again and again. As a childhood abuse survivor and a disciple of Jesus, I pray to do what I can to walk with others toward healing and if possible, forgiveness.

Deborah Rodriguez

I am a wife, mother, physician, mental health coach, medical missionary, and practicing Catholic living in Washington State. My specialty training in trauma-informed care has enabled me to work with trauma survivors in medical and faith settings for the past 10 years. I am a survivor of complex trauma, including childhood abuse by a priest, abuse as an adult in the Church, and the experience of reporting this abuse to Church authorities. I love to travel, watch Disney princess movies, and have long conversations with friends. In my work with Awake, I want to help bring awareness to and raise up the voice of ethnic and racial minority survivors and their supporters. También me gustaría ofrecer recursos en español a los sobrevivientes.

Elizabeth*

Raised Catholic from birth, I no longer consider myself to be a member of the Catholic Church—primarily because of the way that the Church has responded to survivors of abuse by its clergy. A native of Greater Boston, I was sexually assaulted by a priest at the age of 15, and I came forward to report the assault to the Archdiocese of Boston as an adult. I am immensely disheartened by the Catholic Church’s persistent lack of transparency, and the continued prioritization of its own interests at the expense of those who have been victimized by its clergy. My involvement with Awake stems from my desire to get Church leaders to see how the Church continues to cause harm by virtue of how it responds to victims who come forward.

*”Elizabeth” is a pseudonym used to protect the privacy of this participant.

Esther Harber

I am a devoted Catholic living with my husband and daughter in Ohio. I am a convert from a fundamentalist Protestant denomination, and I was blessed to enter the Catholic Church in 2006. The Lord placed a passion in my heart for sharing the faith, and I spent the better part of my twenties as a lay missionary in New York City. I was also in religious life for a year. During my time as a missionary, I experienced spiritual abuse and a sexual assault by a Catholic priest. After a long period of healing, I felt the Lord calling me to walk with other victim-survivors and to bring light to this crisis in the Church. While I love the Church, I know personally how hard it is to wrestle with one’s faith in the wake of such atrocities, and I desire to help others in this healing journey.

Gigi Fontanilla

I have spent most of my life in Florida, where I currently work for a nonprofit organization that serves the poor. I love spending time with family and friends, especially at the Florida beach, which I nickname “my other therapist” because it brings me so much peace. I am a committed Catholic who experienced clergy sexual abuse as an adult, and I value giving fellow survivors a safe space to feel whatever they are feeling. I hope our love can inspire them as they walk through this difficult journey and can show them that healing is possible. Through my work with Awake, I would also like to inspire church leaders to become better listeners towards abuse survivors.

Jan Ruidl

I was born to a Catholic family and practiced most of my life. I’m married to my husband Gregg and we have four children and five grandchildren. I have a master’s degree in divinity and worked as a parish director following a career in nursing. Currently, I do a bit of grief ministry on a freelance basis but am mostly retired. As a survivor of abuse as a teenager, I’ve been active on a religious order review board, healing circles, and other opportunities to assist victims. At the present moment, I see a great need for the Church to learn about and embrace the understanding of trauma as it related to clergy sexual abuse. It is critical that we approach abuse survivors or copers with a solid application of core Catholic beliefs and insist that the hierarchy do the same. In other words, “become what we believe.” I am currently “on sabbatical” from the Church as I discern, or perhaps deconstruct from all the negative labeling, decidedly unhelpful language, and the myriad abuses beyond sexual abuses that occur as a constitutive part of the Church.

Jennifer LaVoy

I am a devoted Catholic, wife to an amazing husband, mother to six beautiful children, and grandmother to three. I live in Wisconsin and am a stay-at-home mom who enjoys creating beauty in homemaking and intentional living. The lake is my happy place. I am a survivor of spiritual, psychological, and sexual abuse by a Catholic priest as an adult. After years of hard work on the path toward healing, I’ve found peace and purpose in sharing with others and helping other survivors to know that they are not alone. I’m also very passionate about dispelling the myths and stigmas surrounding clergy sex abuse.

Kathryn Walczyk

I was raised Catholic in a family of outdoor adventurists: gardeners, hunters, hikers, paddlers. My spirit soared outdoors and cowered when childhood abuses began. During a mid-life recovery period within the church I gained a master of theological studies degree, spiritual direction training, healing, additional trauma, and a loss of agency. Leaving the church and returning to my earthly spiritual roots led to health, autonomy, deep love, and my life professions; I am a spiritual companion for others and a voice offering perspective. I focus on bodily and spiritual trauma, recovery, and health. I call for the inclusion of those lost and silenced, believing each life precious and vital to our collective spiritual existence. I align with the heart-led, humble, determined people of Awake and with the commitment to listen, learn, and broaden perspective.

Kathy Coll

I am a retired Leadership Development teacher and an active Catholic in the diocese of Pittsburgh. I have two grown sons, who enjoy high adventure activities like their mom. Since my experience of assault by a Catholic priest in 2016, I have made it my mission to support other women who have experienced abuse. In the time that I have been involved in Awake, I have watched this organization grow, and I would like to be a part of extending that growth in whatever way I can. God has given me a voice to speak up for others, a passion for assisting other survivors, and creativity to think through ideas and offer solutions to problems, giving a real focus to my healing journey as a victim/survivor.

Larry Normann

For the last 38 years I have served as a deacon in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I have been married to my wife Pam for 45 years, and we have twin daughters who are both married, as well as one grandson. At the age of 19, I was abused by a priest while in the seminary studying to be a priest, a gross misuse of power and authority. Sharing this experience in my preaching, and describing how I found my way to healing, has opened doors and given me opportunities to journey with others seeking their own healing.

Lisa Neu

I grew up in central Minnesota where I now reside with my husband and five of our seven children. My educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in theology from the College of St. Benedict and master’s in pastoral ministry from St. John’s School of Theology. I have spent the last 24 years in parish and diocesan ministry in the Diocese of St. Cloud, working mostly in faith formation and youth ministry. I am currently serving as an intern chaplain at the St. Cloud Hospital. I am passionate about empowering people, especially those not in formal positions of leadership, to work for positive change in the structures and relationships that continue to allow abuses of power within the Church.

Lucy Huh

I was born and raised in California and am a lifelong Catholic. I attended the University of California, Irvine for my bachelor’s in psychology and master’s in education, and I find meaning and fulfillment through my career as a case manager for children and adults with developmental disabilities. Through Awake, I have found support from other survivors who, despite the tremendous, lifelong pain that has unjustly become theirs, have chosen not to allow what happened to them to destroy their faith. Awake’s mission is important to me because I believe that only by bringing awareness to the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, particularly the largely unaddressed but pervasive issue of clergy abuse of adults, can we prevent the unnecessary suffering of others, restore the integrity of the institution, and help the church be healed and reconciled to what the Lord intended it to be. 

Mike Koplinka-Loehr

My career spanned non-profit organizations (fundraising, directing) and elected leadership positions (Legislature) in Tompkins County, NY. I am passionate about overcoming barriers for underrepresented survivor constituencies to have full access to services and resources, to meet their unique needs. Thus, I’m especially committed to expanding services for men, since centuries of societal conditioning have led to stigma, shame, silence, secrecy and mental health services aversion for men. To that end, I’ve been starting The Healing Resource Institute for Victim Empowerment (THRIVE) under the auspices of The Advocacy Center in Ithaca NY, to serve the specific needs of male survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

4 thoughts on “Awake Announces Newly Expanded Survivor Advisory Panel 

  1. Thank you to the Survivor Advisory Panel members for your willingness to serve. Your voices are important to the mission of Awake and hearing your thoughts and opinions will bring new grace to Awake’s work.

  2. Welcome to all of you and I appreciate your desire to improve our Church and the lives of victim survivors.

  3. What a beautiful collection of people. I am proud of Awake Milwaukee and grateful to the men and women on this advisory board for the gift they are giving our organization through their service.

  4. Thank you all for your generosity to Awake and for sharing a bit about yourselves! I am so grateful for your leadership.

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