How the Pope Can Spur Reform — Recognize SNAP Leader Barbara Blaine As a Saint
By Celia Viggo Wexler
San Francisco Chronicle
February 19, 2019
|Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), with a photo of herself at age 13 — the time of her abuse. Blaine died in 2017 at the age of 61.|
Pope Francis signaled last week that even high-ranking prelates can face punishment for sexual abuse. The Vatican threw former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick out of the priesthood, because of his sexual abuse of minors and other crimes.
But that gesture does not address the other part of the problem: the church’s long-standing cover-up of credible abuse allegations. Indeed, some critics are skeptical that a four-day sexual abuse summit of bishops in Rome beginning Thursday will produce concrete reforms. Others worry that the event could be used to declare war on gay priests.
On his flight back to Rome from Panama last month, the Pope told reporters that expectations for the Rome meeting were “somewhat inflated,” adding that “the problem of abuse will continue” because it is “a human problem.” The pope, who requested prayers for the meeting’s success, may face resistance to reform from some of his own prelates.
But he could take one positive step on his own: He could ask the church to consider whether abuse survivor and activist Barbara Blaine merits recognition as a saint.
I got to know Blaine when I interviewed her for my book, “Catholic Women Confront Their Church.” She was tall and slender, dressed in a suit whose neutral tones complimented her fair skin and light brown hair. Her warmth and generosity were evident, despite the trauma she had suffered.
Blaine, who died in 2017, was sexually assaulted by her parish priest for four years, starting when she was 13. She was 29 when she read Jason Berry’s reports of priestly abuse in Louisiana, and finally realized that she was not the guilty party; her assistant pastor was.
Alone and unsupported, she began the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in 1988, both to help victims and reform the church.
Blaine initially trusted bishops to fix the problem. They betrayed her.
The most wrenching disappointment came when Archbishop Harry Flynn, who pushed through a “zero-tolerance” policy for abuse in the U.S. church, was later exposed for covering up pedophilia in his own diocese.
Considering Blaine for sainthood would recognize that victims suffer twice, both from the abuse itself and the often duplicitous response of the clerics they trusted.
A papal endorsement would tell the world the church no longer will dismiss survivors as gadflies causing scandal for the institution.
And it would send a signal that a woman strong enough to ask the United Nations to scrutinize the Vatican’s record on abuse was not a pariah but a prophet, calling attention to wrongs for which the institutional church must atone.
Under church rules, a person must be dead for five years before the process can begin. But popes have made exceptions before, for Mother Teresa and John Paul II.
It seems to me that Blaine lived a life of “heroic virtue,” qualifying her for sainthood.
Not yet 20 years old, she volunteered at a convent in Jamaica, teaching high school and helping to staff a center for poor children. She spent 10 years running a Catholic Worker house, serving the homeless and living in poverty. (Even after she left, she remained true to her Catholic Worker ethic, letting a street person regularly bathe in her apartment.)
Her work with SNAP was not limited to fighting for accountability. Blaine also offered victims a chance to heal with others who had gone through the same experience. With more than 25,000 members, SNAP became the largest support group for victims of clergy abuse in the country.
Saints are not immune from controversy. Late in her tenure, SNAP was sued by a former employee, who charged that the group accepted kickbacks from attorneys for victim referrals — an allegation SNAP vigorously denied. The lawsuit was settled in 2018.
Nevertheless, Blaine’s legacy cannot be challenged. She likely is the one person most responsible for ensuring that abuse victims were not forgotten, and for pushing the church to do better to protect the children in its care.
Blaine lived long enough to see some progress. “My crisis, our crises, became a cause. Our cause became a movement,” she wrote in 2015. “And our movement has made a safer church, though not yet safe enough.”
Celia Viggo Wexler is the author of “Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope” (2016, Rowman & Littlefield).