SNAP Ruling Has Clergy-abuse Victims" Advocate on Defensive

By Manya A. Brachear
Chicago Tribune
May 11, 2012,0,7502219.story

Barbara Blaine, founder and president of clergy-abuse group SNAP, stuffs envelopes with newsletters and appeals for donors, along with Norman Bowers of Chicago. (Heather Charles, Tribune photo / May 11, 2012)

A prominent activist group in the Roman Catholic Church's clergy-abuse crisis is fighting a Missouri judge's ruling to open more than two decades of correspondence with victims, lawyers, witnesses and journalists thought to be confidential.

Lawyers for a Kansas City priest accused of abuse said the documentation will shed light on whether the Chicago-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, commonly known as SNAP, has coached victims to fabricate claims of repressed memory. Lawyers for the St. Louis Archdiocese are pursuing the same strategy in a separate case.

But Jackson County, Mo., Circuit Court Judge Ann Mesle's ruling last month that SNAP must provide access to the documents has sent a chill through the community of sexual-abuse survivors who have leaned on SNAP for confidential support and protection they never thought they would get from the church, the group's officers and members said.

"Rather than taking a look at themselves and reflecting on what the priests have done, the church has decided SNAP is an enemy to be crushed," said Barbara Meyer, 66, of Chicago, who said she turned to SNAP when the Chicago Archdiocese ignored her allegations of priest abuse. "They've destroyed lives in a really ugly way ... I don't think much of a church like that. SNAP has given me my life back."

SNAP is neither a plaintiff nor a defendant in the Missouri cases. But if defense lawyers can prove that the plaintiffs' repressed memories of years-old abuse were not "recovered," judges could dismiss the lawsuits for falling outside Missouri's statute of limitations.

Leaders of the group argue that SNAP falls under the same confidentiality guidelines that protect rape crisis centers. But some lawyers say the group functions more like Alcoholics Anonymous, a recovery group that relies on principles of confidentiality that are not honored by courts. The lawyers insist they aren't out to violate victims' privacy. They say they simply need the facts.

"One of the allegations in the press is that the lawyers and the diocese are trying to 'out' the alleged victims," Kansas City lawyer Brian Madden said in court last month. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Daughter of the church, dismayed

Barbara Blaine, the founder and president of SNAP, never envisioned a combative relationship with the Catholic Church. In fact, she devoted her life to its mission to help the poor and promote peace.

As the director of the Catholic Worker House on Chicago's South Side, she worked with then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's administration to house and feed the homeless. While working in the Uptown neighborhood, she made sure the indigent received a proper burial. Alongside a Catholic priest, she was arrested for trespassing during an anti-nuclear demonstration at the west suburban Argonne National Laboratory.

In 1985, however, a newspaper article about clergy abuse triggered a sudden recollection of being abused by her family's priest in Toledo, Ohio, Blaine said. Church officials there questioned whether she had misinterpreted the priest's affection. They also instructed her not to tell law enforcement.

Feeling "raked over the coals," Blaine rounded up other victims to figure out how to heal. For the first meeting, in 1988 at a Holiday Inn in Orland Park, she invited professional counselors and lawyers to offer expertise. She didn't expect the group to stay together for longer than a year.

"Now I understand it's a lifelong process," she said. "I thought it was something you heal from like a broken leg. I never realized it would take so long."

In 2002, shortly after the clergy abuse scandal broke in Boston, bishops invited victims including Blaine and the group's executive director, David Clohessy, to join them at a landmark meeting in Dallas. Promises were made, Blaine said, but the results of the gathering failed to assure her that the right thing would be done.

"It was a direct backsliding from the tone and from some of the commitments individual bishops had made," she said.

Eventually the bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy, including a pledge to remove priests from ministry immediately upon their being credibly accused of abuse. But the battle had already begun. By 2003, Blaine had earned her law degree and worked for the Cook County public guardian. She lobbied Illinois legislators to extend the civil statute of limitations so victims of decades-old clergy sex abuse could seek financial recourse. Jimmy Lago, chancellor of the archdiocese, lobbied against the measure.

Lago said he didn't see how creating more opportunities to sue would help victims heal. "I was defending the practice and the policies and the organizational will to respond to victims that came forward," he said. "The reputation of most dioceses wasn't very good. But Chicago made some early changes to its policies and practices and (they) were much more responsive."

Lago said it would be nice if SNAP and the church could collaborate around a common goal. But SNAP's focus on clergy abuse has detracted from what should have been a broader conversation about sexual abuse, he said. SNAP's failure to acknowledge the church's efforts to protect children also has made collaboration difficult, if not impossible, he said.

"Seems to me there could have been a partnership along the way that could have been helpful," Lago said. "But there never was, and it's doubtful there ever will be. It's that same old tired rhetoric of 'We never do anything.' Partnerships have to respect and encourage. They have to respect the positive that happens to move toward a mutual goal."

Blaine said SNAP has never turned down an opportunity to collaborate. But she doesn't trust the church to honor its commitments. Shortly after former Chicago priest Daniel McCormack was charged by the Cook County state's attorney with molesting children after church officials had received complaints and failed to remove him SNAP called on Cardinal Francis George to resign and for prosecutors to criminally investigate him.

Lago contends that, aside from McCormack, the archdiocese has top-notch strategies and personnel in place to screen priests, staff and volunteers and protect children.

"I don't believe there are not good, compassionate people who do the best under the constrictions they operate within who work in the Archdiocese of Chicago or any diocese," Blaine said. "It's not a personal attack on any one of those people. But the structure, the policies, procedures they have in place, I believe, (are) put in such a way that they jeopardize children. They're focused on reputations and the concern for the predators."

Missouri dioceses strike back

The Kansas City lawsuit, one of five against the Rev. Michael Tierney, was filed by a 53-year-old Missouri man who accused the priest of sexually abusing him when he served as an altar boy. The lawsuit alleges that the plaintiff blocked the abuse from his mind after his father threatened to throw him out of the house. A lawsuit filed by another man unlocked the memory, he said.

Tierney's lawyers believe the future of their case could hinge on the role SNAP might have played in the case, even though Clohessy says the plaintiff never went to the group for help. The reason for going after SNAP in Missouri is to employ the statute of limitations, which abuse victims can be exempted from for five years from whenever they recover a memory and become aware of the consequences.

Citing the same confidentiality protections afforded to rape crisis centers, Clohessy, SNAP's executive director, declined to answer questions during a deposition in January and refused to release documents.

Privacy is at the core of what SNAP does, Blaine said. Many victims don't want their spouse or their parents to know they were abused, she said.

"It's a sacred commitment we made to one another when we first met," Blaine said. "Anytime anyone comes to a support group meeting or contacts SNAP, we make clear from the beginning that we offer to each other and expect from each other confidentiality."

John O'Malley, the Archdiocese of Chicago's lawyer, said the Missouri dioceses' decision to go after SNAP is not part of a national strategy adopted by the nation's Catholic bishops.

"I'm not aware of any decision the bishops have made about legal strategy," O'Malley said. "The reason I'm confident there isn't one is the bishops don't coordinate (legal strategy) with each other. Each diocese is its own independent entity."

It also is not a strategy O'Malley has ever adopted in Chicago because it would not help achieve the archdiocese's ultimate goal.

"Our goal here is to resolve these cases and allow anyone in the church and who was abused to move forward," he said.

Lyn Schollett, legal counsel for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said no Illinois court has ruled whether SNAP would be protected by the state statutes that protect rape crisis centers. But every threat to a victim's privacy should be taken seriously, she said.

"My concern would be future victims would have less confidence in coming forward to seek help if they don't think their communications will be confidential," she said. "As a general matter, confidential counseling is enormously important."

Experts say no state legislature has yet extended to members of self-help groups the kind of privilege accorded certified therapists and clergy, who have some leeway to resist subpoenas.

Blaine cringes at the comparison to a 12-step program, which SNAP consciously eschews. Twelve-step programs encourage trust in a higher power. It was under the authority of a higher power that SNAP's members suffered abuse, Blaine said.

"For so many of us who were raped and sodomized under the pretext of the power of God," she said, "so many of us within rituals and sacraments were sexually violated. It was just too triggering and painful."

Bruce Boyer, director of the ChildLaw Center at Loyola University, said SNAP pushed the conversation about clergy abuse and forced the church to strike the right balance. To silence that voice would be a shame.

"What I understand of SNAP is they provide a significant resource to people who are victims of very politically charged type of crime," he said. "They may function a little bit differently in part because they are focused on dealing with a specific set of perpetrators. What distinguishes this set of perpetrators is that they typically have very significant protections and resources available to them through the support of the church and that obviously has continued to be a very important issue."









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