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Priest abuse survivors group marks milestone

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Updated: September 4, 2014 6:41AM

When Barbara Blaine launched a group 25 years ago to help people sexually abused by Catholic priests, the reception was icy.

It was “utter scorn and disbelief for years by parishioners and church officials,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. “We would hand out leaflets to publicize our support group outside of a church. The police were called. Parishioners would shout at us and sometimes shove us or spit on us.”

And today?

“We have far less of people calling us liars,” said Blaine, who serves as president and was sexually abused as a child by a priest.

“Parishioners come out and take a flier and say, ‘We’re so grateful for you all for being here. Thanks for speaking up.’ We still get people who complain, but many recognize and appreciate that we’re exposing it.”

SNAP is holding its annual conference in Chicago this weekend as it marks its 25th year. What began as a small, informal group of victims has grown into an international network with more than 19,000 members in 65 U.S. cities and 79 countries.

Ninety percent of SNAP’s work today is providing behind-the-scenes support to victims, witnesses and whistle-blowers. But SNAP also has evolved to become a high-profile, relentless, vocal advocate for the abused.

SNAP has held news conferences across the country with victims who’ve exposed their abusers — many of whom sued the priests and Catholic Church leaders. And it has pushed for the Catholic Church, legislators and law enforcement to punish predators and those who shielded them, to make the public aware of abusers, and put in place stronger safeguards to protect children.

“SNAP has played a “fundamental role in helping victims come forward and helping them organize and exercise their rights,” said Albany Law School Professor Tim Lytton, author of the book “Holding Bishops Accountable.”

The Archdiocese of Chicago said in March it had paid victims $118 million as part of settlement agreements for abuse that took place over the past 50 years.

“People used to laugh at us when we would say there’s got to be a binding national church abuse policy. For years, bishops and church observers and even journalists said, ‘You’re naive. That will never happen.’ It has,” Clohessy recalled.

Even so, he added, that policy must be strengthened and better enforced, he said.

“People laughed at us when we said bishops should post on their websites the names of predator priests,” he shared. “Now roughly 30 in the U.S. have done that.”

Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, a speaker at the conference Saturday, thanked the group for their work. She served on a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops lay National Review Board that investigated abuse of minors by clergy, which issued a report with recommendations in 2004.

“The faithful here in the United States and indeed around the globe would be more threatened today without you,” Burke said. “When no one was listening, you spoke up and exposed the sinister machinations of leaders who did not listen.”

Said Blaine: “In many ways, the movement has taken on a life of its own. People read, get inspired and take action. It’s certainly not any one of us who have made that happen. It’s a widespread experience of the survivors that makes it all happen.”


Twitter: @KnowlesFran

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