After SNAP president resigns, new generation of leadership eyed

Becky Ianni of Burke, Va., and Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, both members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests demonstrate at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia in 2015 during #PopeFrancis' visit to the United States. The pope met privately with a group of survivors of sexual abuse in Philadelphia. (CNS/Joshua Roberts)

Becky Ianni of Burke, Va., and Barbara Dorris of St. Louis, both members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests demonstrate at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia in 2015 during #PopeFrancis’ visit to the United States. The pope met privately with a group of survivors of sexual abuse in Philadelphia. (CNS/Joshua Roberts)

By Dennis Sadowski
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — The resignation of the president of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests opens the door for a new generation of leaders, said a top volunteer within the organization.

“SNAP is full of vibrant leaders,” Joelle Casteix, the organization’s Western regional director, told Catholic News Service Feb. 6. She said the resignation Feb. 3 of Barbara Blaine, who founded SNAP and served as its president for 29 years, was not totally unexpected.

“The time was not what anyone had planned, but any vibrant organization can always find people to stand up and lead an organization into its next phase,” Casteix said.

“For us, it’s always heartbreaking when a leader departs,” she added. “The true heart and mission of SNAP will always be with its volunteer leadership.”

Blaine’s resignation was announced to SNAP’s volunteer members Feb. 4. Mary Ellen Kruger, who chairs the SNAP board of directors, said in an email Feb. 6 to CNS that Blaine stepped down for personal reasons “that have nothing to do with the lawsuit.”

The action came less than three weeks after a former SNAP director of development, Gretchen Rachel Hammond, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit charging that the organization is more interested in fundraising and taking kickbacks from lawyers suing the Catholic Church than in helping survivors.

Blaine had been a vocal critic of organizations, particularly the Catholic Church, for responses to clergy sexual abuse. She often was joined by David Clohessy, SNAP’s former longtime executive director, who resigned Dec. 31.

Religion News Service reported Jan. 24 that Clohessy said his decision was unrelated to the lawsuit. “My last day was five weeks ago, before this lawsuit ever happened,” he told RNS. The suit was filed Jan. 17. In response to an email query from CNS to confirm that information Jan. 26, Blaine said: “David resigned Dec. 31, 2016, and it had nothing to do with the lawsuit.”

SNAP is considered the largest and best-known advocacy organization for survivors of clerical abuse.

Hammond’s lawsuit, filed in Cook County Circuit Court in Chicago, accuses SNAP of being “a commercial organization” and “premised upon farming out abuse survivors as clients for attorneys, who then file lawsuits on behalf of the survivors and collect settlement checks from the Catholic Church.”

Hammond worked for SNAP from July 2011 to February 2013. She claims she was fired in retaliation for a series of discoveries she made about the way settlements were being handled, and that the stress caused by SNAP’s treatment of her sent her to the hospital four times and resulted in a series of health problems.

The lawsuit also asserted that SNAP “is motivated by its directors’ and officers’ personal and ideological animus against the Catholic Church.” In 2011, SNAP helped publicize an attempt in Europe to bring charges in the International Criminal Court against Pope Benedict XVI and other Vatican officials for crimes against humanity for allegedly “concealing and tolerating” clergy abuse. In June 2013, the head of that court declined to pursue such a case.

On Feb. 1, Kruger addressed the lawsuit’s charges on the organization’s website. She said SNAP had never been a counseling organization, but rather a volunteer-based, peer support network of survivors who help each other through a variety of actions and in local groups in 22 states.

Kruger also acknowledged that SNAP refers abuse survivors to attorneys “in an effort to bring accountability to those that have condoned and perpetuated this abuse for decades.” She said if abuse survivors are unable to “fight back against the system, systemic abuse of authority would continue unabated.”

The statement denied that SNAP ever refers survivors to attorneys in exchange for money, saying that the organization “has never and will never enter into any ‘kickback schemes.'” Kruger’s statement acknowledged that SNAP solicits and accepts donations from “anyone who believes in our cause,” including attorneys who have filed lawsuits against priests and particular dioceses.

While tax filings with the IRS showed Blaine and Clohessy were paid $86,320 each in 2014, the latest year records are available, Casteix told CNS she would like to see the organization “move into professional leadership.”

“I believe that SNAP’s next phase can be much more inclusive of survivors … and have professional leadership to reach out to a broader range of survivors,” she said.

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Follow Sadowski on Twitter: @DennisSadowski.

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