Remembrance: A Reflection on the Life of Barbara Blaine, 1956-2017
When Barbara Blaine founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in 1989, she launched the most consequential movement of Catholic church reform since Martin Luther's. Her sudden death on September 24, 2017 left an unfillable void. She was a friend and inspiration to BishopAccountability.org. If not for her work, our work would not have been possible. She is greatly missed.
• Video, Barbara Ann Blaine Memorial Celebration
• Barbara Blaine, founder of sex abuse survivor group SNAP, dies, National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 2017
• Hundreds Gather Honor Barbara Blaine, Founder of Abuse Victims Group SNAP, NBC Chicago, October 29, 2017
• See also obituaries for Barbara in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and The Toledo Blade.
Remarks by Anne Barrett Doyle, Co-Director, BishopAccountability.org
Memorial and Celebration of the Life of Barbara Blaine
October 28, 2017
Five hundred years ago this week, Martin Luther laid down his challenge to the Catholic Church. What an appropriate time to celebrate the astonishing life of Barbara Blaine!
Barbara changed the world. Her impact is felt today in every country in which the Catholic Church operates.
Two days ago, the Associated Press published a blockbuster story that appeared worldwide. Headline: Clerical sex abuse disclosures skyrocket in pope’s Argentina.
What does this have to do with Barbara? Everything. Nearly all the new cases in Argentina can be traced to the emergence three years ago of the country's first group of clergy abuse survivors, which Barbara had been instrumental in setting up. She had mentored an Argentine survivor, a dynamo named Julieta Añazco, and raised money and flew Julieta to the SNAP conference. Today, Julieta is the Barbara Blaine of Argentina -- helping victims find support, file criminal complaints and make public the names of their abusers.
I know this because a core project of ours at BishopAccountability.org is to document clergy sex abuse around the world. And as my colleague Terry McKiernan often says, that work would not be possible if not for Barbara.
I met Barbara in my city, Boston, in March of 2002. The Boston Globe’s investigation of Cardinal Law had begun, and I was part of a group organizing protests outside the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. We had invited the famous founder of SNAP to attend our demonstration on Good Friday, and we were giddy when she said yes. (My first reaction when I met Barbara, I’m embarrassed to say, was how young and pretty she was … and also how unfazed!)
Fast forward to 2010. The Catholic abuse crisis was being exposed all over the world -- in Chile, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Australia. It was becoming evident that the Vatican itself had engineered the cover-up.
And Barbara had a breakthrough idea – that the Vatican’s enabling of sexual violence must be addressed in the framework of international human rights, and specifically in the International Criminal Court.
Six years ago this fall, Barbara and SNAP, with the Center for Constitutional Rights, submitted a brief asking that the pope and Vatican officials be investigated and prosecuted for crimes against humanity.
The New York Times called it "the most substantive effort yet to hold the pope and the Vatican accountable.”
This in turn caught the attention of human rights experts at the United Nations, and a few years later, two UN committees (1, 2) were grilling Vatican officials about their dangerous policies and practices. They had been briefed by Barbara and other SNAP leaders … and the media coverage was overwhelming.
So picture this. This scrappy, under-resourced, grassroots organization of abuse survivors on the global stage, forcing accountability from the most powerful and most secretive institution on earth.
Barbara was a brilliant strategist.
She was also a mentor for others in the movement. I was inspired by her fearlessness, her conviction. She instilled confidence. I was speaking about this with Megan Peterson. Megan was just 21 years old in 2011, when in the same week, she went public for the first time with her story … of sexual assault by a priest in Minnesota … and then got on her first international flight, accompanying Barbara to the International Criminal Court, where Megan’s case was presented as key evidence.
Megan talked about how Barbara had a way of seeing right through the false assumptions you were making about yourself. Said Megan, “I was terrified, but she just said to me, 'You are the person to do this. You are more than capable. Do not doubt yourself.'”
Men too drew strength from Barbara. Phil Saviano tells a wonderful story the night Spotlight – the film about the Boston Globe’s investigation of Cardinal Law -- won the Academy Award for best picture.
Phil was at the Oscar ceremony, and he gets pulled up on stage with the actors when the award is announced. He realizes at that moment that he is gravely ill. He manages to get to an emergency room but the people who took him there need to get back to the Oscar festivities.
"So it’s 2:00 a.m.," says Phil, "And Barbara suddenly appears by my bedside in the ICU. It was such a comfort." But then he panics, remembering suddenly that he has to check out of the Beverly Hilton by noon. Barbara says, “Don’t worry. Give me your key. I’ll do it." It’s now 3 a.m. Barbara hops in a cab, goes to Phil’s room at the Hilton, packs his stuff, brings it back to the hospital, and then runs to LAX to get her plane home to Chicago. She’d been up all night, Phil said.
This compassion of Barbara’s is legendary. But she herself was never the one to reveal her own kindnesses. Nor did she speak often about her own abuse.
In fact, I heard Barbara speak of it only once in the 15 years I knew her.
At the 2011 SNAP conference, towards the end of a very long, successful day, she joined a circle of survivors attending a workshop my organization was holding. That day, we were collecting stories about the various ways the sacrament of confession intersected with clergy abuse.
Barbara, in that matter-of-fact way of hers, shared her own story.
Each time she was assaulted by her parish priest Chet Warren, he would remind her that she better get to confession before the following Sunday, so that she could receive Communion at Mass with her family. Obviously, she couldn’t do it at their parish. So, Barbara said, I’d ride my bike miles to parishes in other towns.
The image sticks with me. That adorable girl with her terrible secret, peddling anxiously to get absolution for a sin that was not hers.
What a constructive and beautiful life she created out of that insanity.
I hope that Barbara sometimes realized what we all knew about her: that because of her, countless survivors have chosen to live … and countless children have been protected from sexual assault. And who knows, she may even have saved a very damaged Catholic church. At the very least, she defined for them the path for their redemption.