A victims’ support group that helped force the Roman Catholic Church to confront the problem of child-molesting priests is going through upheaval of its own, including the resignations of two top leaders and a potentially reputation-damaging lawsuit.
Barbara Blaine, who founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, in 1988, stepped down as president Friday, about a month after the resignation of long-time executive director David Clohessy.
The change in leadership was sandwiched around a Jan. 17 lawsuit accusing SNAP of exploiting the victims it purports to serve by taking kickbacks from lawyers.
Blaine and Clohessy said their resignations were planned months ago and were unrelated to the lawsuit. They said they simply decided it was time to step aside after decades with the nonprofit group.
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But the turnover and the lawsuit have created a tumultuous time for an organization that has been one of the loudest voices holding the Catholic Church accountable for sexual abuse by priests.
SNAP’s new leader, Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, said the organization remains as strong as ever and will persevere. Clohessy said SNAP’s strength isn’t in its leadership but in the hundreds of volunteers “who so generously work to protect kids, expose predators and help survivors.”
The organization is not nearly as visible as it was during the height of the sexual abuse scandal more than a decade ago, in part because many of the victims from decades ago have come forward and been heard, and the church, under pressure from SNAP and others, is more aggressively policing itself.
Some experts, though, say SNAP continues to play a vital role.
“I think the need for an organization like SNAP is still very important because of the uneven way some bishops and religious orders respond to these accusations,” said Jason Berry, an author of three books on the church scandal.
Nicholas Cafardi, a professor at the Duquesne University School of Law and former chairman of the U.S. Bishops National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, said SNAP still has a place “in making sure the topic never does get buried again.”
“They’ll be relevant as long as the problem is with us,” Cafardi said.
In the lawsuit, filed in Chicago, Gretchen Hammond said that she learned after starting work as SNAP’s director of development in 2011 that the organization “does not focus on protecting or helping survivors – it exploits them.” The lawsuit alleges that SNAP “routinely accepts financial kickbacks from attorneys” in the form of donations in exchange for directing potential clients to those lawyers.
Blaine denied the allegations and said the lawsuit was the latest in a long line of efforts to silence SNAP, whose sometimes confrontational nature, including sidewalk news conferences in front of churches and Catholic administrative offices, has angered church leaders and supporters.
“Since the beginning of SNAP we have been fighting people trying to discredit us and attribute ulterior motives to our work,” Blaine said. “This is nothing new.”
SNAP’s work gained momentum after The Boston Globe’s explosive 2002 series of stories on pedophile priests. Today, SNAP has more than 25,000 members around the world, including many victims of clergy sexual abuse.
Still, times are different. The Vatican has acknowledged the abuse and taken steps to eliminate it around the world, and the U.S. church alone has paid out more than $3 billion to victims. Last year, Pope Francis said any bishop who moves a suspected pedophile priest from one parish to another should resign, calling clerical abuse “a monstrosity.”
Yet, the scandal continues to flare up. In 2015, Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis resigned amid accusations that he mishandled abuse cases and committed sexual misconduct himself. He denied wrongdoing.
Dorris said SNAP has become a vital support group for victims of abuse in other institutions – scouting, schools, athletics.
Blaine, Clohessy and Dorris all have said they were abused as youths. Dorris, 69, said it was misconduct she witnessed while working as a gym teacher at a St. Louis parish in the early 1990s that led to her involvement in SNAP. She said she saw a pastor inappropriately touching a girl.
“Like a good Catholic I thought if I went to my pastor he’d be removed,” she said. “But nothing was done.”
She learned about SNAP and reached out to Clohessy. “That was the first time anybody really tried to help me get that priest away from kids,” Dorris said.
It didn’t work – the priest remains active, Dorris said.