Advocacy group for victims of priest sex abuse is sued over alleged kickbacks

Barbara Dorris, outreach director with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, denies allegations that the group takes kickbacks from law firms.
Barbara Dorris, outreach director with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, denies allegations that the group takes kickbacks from law firms.

A former employee of a national victims’ advocacy group is suing the organization, saying she was fired after questioning what she said was evidence that it was accepting kickbacks for referring sex abuse victims to attorneys.

The civil lawsuit, filed Tuesday against the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, alleges that instead of protecting or helping survivors of sexual abuse, the organization neglects and exploits them.

The suit was filed by Gretchen Rachel Hammond in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Ill. Hammond worked for SNAP from July 2011 through early 2013, the lawsuit says.

“SNAP routinely accepts financial kickbacks from attorneys in the form of ‘donations,’ ” the lawsuit alleges. “In exchange for the kickbacks, SNAP refers survivors as potential clients to attorneys, who then file lawsuits on behalf of the survivors against the Catholic Church.”

The cases often are settled “to the financial benefit of the attorneys and, at times, to the financial benefit of SNAP, which has received direct payments form survivors’ settlements,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also alleges that SNAP squanders money intended for sexual abuse victims, uses publicity surrounding lawsuits to enhance fundraising, and “is motivated largely by the personal animus of its directors and officers against the Catholic Church.”

SNAP President Barbara Blaine said Thursday in an email: “The allegations are not true. This will be proven in court.”

Also named in the lawsuit are Blaine, who is also SNAP’s founder; executive director David Clohessy; and outreach director Barbara Dorris.

“We don’t believe the allegations are true,” Dorris told The Star. “We are going to continue our work to help survivors seek justice and protect the innocent and the vulnerable.”

SNAP leaders have been familiar figures in the Kansas City area, often holding news conferences to announce the dozens of lawsuits that have been filed against area priests in recent years and pressing diocesan officials to be more aggressive in reporting abuse.

According to this week’s lawsuit, SNAP hired Hammond in July 2011 to be its director of development. Her main responsibility was to oversee fundraising for the nonprofit.

The lawsuit claims that Hammond first became concerned when she was not allowed to participate in an internal audit of SNAP for 2011. She also was not allowed to attend any of SNAP’s programs, including meetings with victims, the lawsuit alleges.

Hammond discovered the kickback scheme, the lawsuit claims, when she was accidentally sent copies of an email to an attorney who represents sex abuse victims. The email provided information about a victim for the purpose of filing a lawsuit and asked the attorney when SNAP could expect a donation, according to the lawsuit.

Hammond confronted Blaine, the lawsuit alleges, but was told “this is nothing.” After that, SNAP leaders began retaliating against Hammond and closely monitoring her activities, the lawsuit says. As a result, she suffered from stress and depression. Hammond was fired in February 2013, the lawsuit says, and since then has been forced to work for substantially lower wages.

Hammond now is a reporter with Windy City Times, an LGBT publication based in Chicago.

The lawsuit lists numerous examples of substantial contributions it says SNAP received from attorneys. For example, in 2011, it says, more than 56 percent of the organization’s $676,923 in contributions came from plaintiffs’ attorneys.

One Minnesota attorney, the suit alleges, accounted for $275,000 of those donations. A Seattle attorney and a Delaware attorney who represent clergy abuse victims each donated $25,000 that year, the lawsuit says.

In 2008, the lawsuit says, the same Minnesota attorney donated $415,140 to SNAP, which was 55 percent of that year’s total contributions.

The lawsuit says that in 2007, more than 81 percent of the $437,407 in donations to SNAP came from attorneys.

Legal experts say it’s a violation of professional ethics for a lawyer to make a payment for client referrals. But proving it can be difficult, they say.

“You know how this goes,” said Richard Levy, a law professor at the University of Kansas. “A law firm makes a contribution and the group refers to the law firm. But I don’t know that you could always prove that there is that kind of quid pro quo.”

The same issues can arise when a politician receives a contribution, then votes favorably for those who made the contribution. While there could be a quid pro quo involved, Levy said, it’s also possible that the people merely contributed to the politician because the politician already supported the things they wanted.

“But if you could show explicitly a connection and an agreement and an understanding,” he said, “there’d be a pretty clear ethics violation.”

The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, does not name any attorneys or law firms connected to Kansas City.

SNAP’s critics have long claimed that the organization was too close to the law firms that represented sexual abuse victims. They also have repeatedly made allegations about kickbacks that were similar to Hammond’s claims.

“For many years, we at have asserted that SNAP’s activities have had almost nothing to do with the protection of children and everything to do with bludgeoning the Catholic Church for what it stands for,” said Dave Pierre on his blog, which critiques the mainstream media’s coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse issue.

Judy L. Thomas: 816-234-4334, @judylthomas