Leadership

Awake is led by a dedicated team of volunteers, including our Executive Director, Board of Directors, Leadership Team, and Chaplain, in collaboration with many other supporters who offer their time and energy to our mission. Please get to know some of our our leaders below!

Executive Director

I am, first and foremost, a committed disciple of Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church has been my home at every stage of my life – from childhood Sunday school to high school youth group, from a theology degree at Marquette University to serving on parish council, volunteering with RCIA, and leading Bible study at my parish. I spent eight wonderful years working in parish ministry, until January 2019 when I discerned a call to devote myself full-time to responding to the abuse and leadership crisis in the Church that I love. In the years since, I have been profoundly changed by the relationships I have built with abuse survivors who have trusted me with their stories and challenged me to ask hard questions and work for real change. These brave men and women are the reason behind everything I do with Awake.

You can read more about Sara here.

Board of Directors

Elizabeth Zimmer, Director and President
I was raised in a Catholic family in Indiana, graduated from Indiana University, and spent many years working in nonprofit development in Chicago, Milwaukee, and Portland, Maine. These days, I live in Shorewood with my husband Eric and four small children and belong to St. Robert parish. I love the Catholic Church and feel blessed by a wonderful parish community that is helping me raise my children in the faith. I have been involved with Awake since early 2019, after feeling called to “do something” about the deep wounds caused by a growing awareness of abuse in the Catholic Church. I am thankful for Awake giving me a safe place to share, listen, and ask tough questions with other people of faith, making it possible to connect with the pain of survivors, and inviting me into the work of transformation and healing.

Jerri von den Bosch, Director and Secretary
After growing up in Pennsylvania, I moved to Milwaukee to attain my Masters in Theology from Marquette University. Today I work at Gesu Parish as the Director of Youth and Adult Formation. I have come to know the abuse crisis intimately through personal experience – my mother’s experience of abuse at the hands of Church leadership. However, my mother’s trauma did not stop her from making sure I knew God through the Catholic Church. Her trust in God has turned me into a public servant and a determined Catholic; I owe so much of my passion for advocacy and Catholic lay ministry to her. Through prayer and community, Awake has given me the outlet I need for my anger towards the Church. I no longer feel constant anger; rather, I feel constant drive to bring us all closer to the Kingdom of God. 

Deirdre Dempsey, Director
I was born in Philadelphia, PA, but my father was in the Navy, so we moved around a lot. Everywhere we moved, my parents made sure that we became a part of the local Catholic parish (even when we were stationed in Egypt in the early 1960’s – I made my First Communion at the Church of the Holy Family, in Maadi, Egypt). I’ve lived in Milwaukee since the mid 1990’s; my first teaching job after I got my PhD from The Catholic University of America was at St. Mary’s Seminary, in Houston, TX. I now teach in the Department of Theology at Marquette University. As a lifelong Catholic, I am very concerned about transparency in the Church – I am very happy to be involved with Awake because of the good work this organization has done to promote transparency.

Shelly Roder, Director
Since studying Theology and Justice and Peace Studies at Creighton University (Go Jays!), my life’s work has been a journey through Catholic ministries and nonprofits who accompany people in need of physical necessities (food, employment, housing) while simultaneously accompanying people of faith in spiritual necessities (community, connection, growth). Currently, I serve as Director of Communication for Franciscan Peacemakers, which provides a pathway to well-being for women who have been sexually exploited. This work has given me a front row seat to how important it is to support survivors of abuse while also transforming systems and structures that have perpetuated this injustice for far too many generations. I see Awake’s work as critical for the future of the Church to which I hope my four children will remain connected.

Elaine Steele, Director
A lifelong Catholic, I grew up in the Fond du Lac area and graduated from UW-Madison. My work as a high school teacher brought me to Milwaukee where I met my husband A.J. We live in Glendale with our young daughter, and we are parishioners at Holy Family parish in Whitefish Bay. When I was a high school senior, our parish priest was removed due to allegations of sexual abuse, just before abuse scandals in the Church made headline news in 2002. Due to that experience, it became apparent to me in 2018 that the way we responded in the early 2000s was woefully insufficient, and Awake provides the opportunity to listen to survivors and work with the Church to affect change. I am grateful that I can work with Awake to help bring healing in the manner to which Christ compels us.

Chaplain

Originally from New England, I have lived in Milwaukee since 2012. I was living in Massachusetts and working as a social worker when the clergy sexual abuse scandal began to escalate. I have worked as a case manager for survivors, as a trainer on child abuse prevention for a Victims’ Advocate, and as an intern at Saint Luke Institute, a facility that treats priests and religious, some of whom have abused children. I now work as a spiritual director and lay minister while working on my PhD in theology and psychology. Awake offers me a way to work towards healing of all those affected by sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, from survivors to parishioners to priests and religious, both individually and institutionally.

Leadership Team

Elizabeth Brick
Born in Connecticut and raised in Michigan, I am a lifelong Catholic who has served the Catholic Church in paid and volunteer positions, including (at various times) as a youth minister, parish council member, lector, Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist and sacristan. I have a BA in English and Theology from the University of Notre Dame. My husband, young son, and I currently live in the suburbs of Milwaukee and are parishioners at the Church of the Gesu on Marquette’s campus. I joined Awake because it is important to me to listen to survivors and advocate for their needs. I also believe that the Catholic Church’s ability to minister to the world is limited if we cannot admit the wrongs done in her name and work for justice.

Mary Gentile
Fifteen years ago, my commitment to the life and teachings of Jesus and curiosity about faith and religion, led me to a masters degree in theology and high school education. I now work in the administration of programs for lay ministers and Catholic school educators. At my parish, St. Gregory the Great, I have taught religious education, served on school commission and pastoral council, and at our annual festival. My husband and three adult sons sustain, support and inspire me. Victims of abuse, God’s beloved children, have been critically damaged by the Church and need healing. The integrity of our Church and its ability to authentically share the Gospel has also been damaged and is in need of healing and renewal. Awake has given me a place to work toward healing and renewal with other concerned Catholics.

Sara Knutson
I am a lifelong Catholic and native Milwaukeean, leaving to pursue a BA in Theology from Xavier University and a Master of Divinity from Boston College School of Theology and Ministry before returning home to work in college campus ministry. My husband and I are active members of Saints Peter and Paul and became parents to our little son this summer. I am involved with Awake because the summer of 2018 woke me up to the scandal that abuse survivors have been naming for decades, and I want to work toward a holier Church and justice for those harmed.

Erin O’Donnell
I am a wife and mother of two sons and a freelance journalist covering mainly health and science topics. A lifelong Catholic, I’ve lived in many different dioceses, including 8 years in the Archdiocese of Boston, before moving with my husband to Milwaukee in 2006. An active member of Saints Peter and Paul parish on the East Side, I’m also a longtime participant and leader in the Beacon Moms program, a faithful, supportive community for moms. I joined Awake in part to help make the Church a safe community for all, and to help educate fellow Catholics. I also joined for my sons. When they become adults and learn the history of the Church, I want them to know I worked for change and healing.

Lynn Charnitz
I grew up Catholic in an era when much of the abuse in the Church was occurring, and when priests were routinely transferred from parish to parish despite their abusive past. I am retired from a career as an IT Project Manager, giving me time to pursue more volunteer interests. As a member of Saints Peter and Paul parish I have served as a trustee, on the Stewardship Commission, and as a co-chair of the Block Party.  When I considered becoming involved in Awake, I asked “If not me, then who?” and decided that as a person of faith I needed to step up to work towards healing the wounds in our Church. 

Jerri von den Bosch
See bio under Board of Directors

Mike Larson, Interim Treasurer
I am a husband and a father of two teenage sons and enjoy games, nature, and theology. I fell in love with Catholicism as an adult in college and have been deeply involved with the Church ever since. I’ve led or been involved in dozens of bible studies, men’s groups, and service opportunities through the Church and enjoy sharing my love of Christ, the Eucharist, and our Holy Mother with anybody willing to listen. As the scandals of recent years have rocked the Church, I knew I needed to do something positive to fight for who we could be as a Church- a true light for the world. I could not stand by and do nothing, and I hope my involvement with Awake helps to heal the divide between the Church, those affected by our sins, and the world.