Local Catholic Organization Holds Event Honoring Sexual Abuse Survivors


Editorial content warning: this article contains discussion of sexual assault and sexual violence. 

The Madison County’s Sexual Abuse Response and Prevention Team (SARP) held their first sexual assault solidarity gathering to honor survivors of sexual assault and sexual abuse last Sunday, April 25 at Eaton Street Pavilion in Hamilton. 

Founded in 2018, SARP is a lay-led Catholic organization, meaning that the group consists of non-ordained ministers, made up of three parishes, St. Jones Church in Morrisville, St. Mary’s Church in Hamilton and St. Bernard’s Church in Waterville. SARP member and affiliate of St. Mary’s Church Margaret Wehrer, who helped organize the event, spoke about the group’s initiatives to raise awareness about and support victims of sexual violence.

“Our goal is really to hold in our hearts and in our thoughts, anyone who has been victimized by sexual violence,” Wehrer said. “Our organization is really only a few years old, so we’re working both within the Catholic church to develop a greater awareness of and better responses to sexual violence within the Catholic church, as well as trying to promote recognition of sexual violence in the greater central New York community.”

The event began with a welcome from Wehrer, followed by a statement from SARP Member and Colgate Professor of Biology Ray Douglas regarding the feelings of isolation and loneliness experienced by survivors of sexual assault and their supporters. The group then presented an exercise in which attendees were given an index card and a pen and asked to write down things they wanted to release from their lives, which was then followed by a ritual in which the index cards were burned. The event concluded with an open mic period and a closing prayer from Professor Douglas.

“We hope that it [the event] was beneficial to those who were present, and that they took it as a sign of solidarity with all those who have been harmed by rape and sexual assault, including what are known as ‘secondary survivors,’ the families and friends of those who have experienced sexual violence personally, who often go overlooked and unacknowledged,” Douglas said following the event.

According to group member and Colgate Professor of Psychology Rebecca Shiner, SARP fosters a strong sense of community within the group, which she hopes to extend to the greater Hamilton area. Shiner added that the group’s main goal is to address sexual abuse and violence within the Catholic Church.

“Although we’re really invested in addressing the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic church, we also want to be a resource to the broader Hamilton Community,” Shiner said. “I think that the event was a really nice anecdote to exactly what Ray Douglas was describing in terms of that sense of isolation experienced by the people who have been victims and by the people who love them.”

Wehrer commented on the importance of holding this event during the coronavirus pandemic. 

“Sexual abuse and domestic violence [rates] have increased pretty dramatically since the beginning of COVID-19. We want to just raise awareness that there are victims, people that have touched by sexual violence all around us,” Wehrer said. “There’s no way to identify who they are, but they’re all around us and we want to just recognize this.”

In addition to this event, SARP is currently working on constructing a monument on the ground of St. Mary’s Church in recognition of survivors of sexual violence and abuse. The group is currently accepting donations, which can be made here