Jun 21, 2017

Leading Group for Church Abuse Victims Faces Uncertain Future

Lilly Fowler
RELIGION & POLITICS
June 20, 2017

David Clohessy often looks as if he’s on the verge of tears when he talks about survivors of sexual abuse. When his vivid blue eyes start to well up, he’ll reach for his glasses and wipe his eyes. He comes across as emotional, but sincere and well-intentioned. We sit at a coffee shop near his home in Maplewood, a neighborhood of St. Louis. Clohessy is recovering from minor surgery and wears a cast on one foot. He says since his resignation in January from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, he’s focused on his health. The sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church consumed Clohessy for nearly 30 years. Now his own organization is under fire for alleged malfeasance.

Barbara Blaine, a lawyer and former social worker who is an abuse survivor herself, founded SNAP in 1988 in Chicago. Clohessy joined the organization in 1991, and it became one of the premiere advocacy groups for victims of sex abuse. The group operated in obscurity until the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-prize winning series on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church ran in 2002. After that, SNAP’s phones wouldn’t stop ringing.

Both SNAP and Clohessy have received widespread media coverage over the years. SNAP makes a cameo in Spotlight, the 2015 Oscar-winning film about the Globe investigation. Clohessy has garnered high-profile media coverage, including a New York Times profile and appearances on Oprah, 60 Minutes and Good Morning America. Today SNAP boasts 25,000 members, but foes and friends alike are unsure if the organization will be able to survive its latest scandal.

In January, a former SNAP employee sued the organization. In her lawsuit, Gretchen Rachel Hammond alleges she was fired after she raised questions about whether SNAP was colluding with attorneys in a kickback scheme—referring sexual abuse victims to attorneys in exchange for donations from those same attorneys. The group firmly denies the allegation, but the claim is particularly damaging to an organization whose mission is to defend the vulnerable.

Clohessy, who had been the group’s national director and spokesman, resigned shortly after Hammond filed the lawsuit, as did the organization’s founder, Barbara Blaine. Clohessy and other SNAP members insist his departure was planned long before the litigation. Blaine also denies the lawsuit had anything to do with her decision to leave. But observers have expressed skepticism about the timing of the exits. The organization, which recently moved its headquarters to St. Louis after its Chicago lease expired, is now led by Barbara Dorris, who has worked at SNAP for nearly 15 years and who insisted that the staff departures were “a weird coincidence.” Dorris said the lawsuit was part of a pile-on of bad news for the organization. The group is facing two other lawsuits—both brought forward by priests who claim SNAP defamed them.

Clohessy says he has no regrets about his years at the organization or his decision to leave it behind. “I’m embarrassed to say this, but I feel very exhausted. I don’t think I realized the toll that it took,” he said. “I’ve always been a workaholic. Almost every survivor we know has one or more addictions and mine has always been work and it’s not healthy and it’s not sustainable.”

Like the majority of those involved in SNAP, Clohessy has his own history of abuse. A Missouri diocesan priest molested Clohessy from age 12 to 16. He reached a $40,000 settlement with the church in 2015. Three of Clohessy’s brothers were also victims. His younger brother Kevin became a priest and was himself accused of sexual abuse. Clohessy is now 60 years old, and while he is not sure what he’ll do next, he hopes it will be less demanding. “While it was very, very draining I can’t imagine anything that could be more meaningful,” he said. To be able to do this work made him “unbelievably lucky.”

Fallout from the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis has hardly diminished, despite more than a decade of heightened awareness of the problem. Just last year, a grand jury report described in harrowing detail the hundreds of Pennsylvania children in a Catholic diocese who were abused by priests from the 1950s through the 1990s. In 2014, the Vatican formed a commission to advise Pope Francis on ways to protect children from sexual abuse, but that commission continues to face criticism for its lack of effectiveness. The lone abuse survivor among the 17-member group resigned in March in protest. And news of sexual abuse among a wide range of other religious groups and in private schools persists.

At SNAP, Hammond worked as the group’s director of development. She learned about the job through a blind ad on Craigslist and was hired in 2011. The following year, Hammond says Clohessy accidentally copied her on an email in which he gave an attorney information about a potential client and in exchange asked for a donation. (Clohessy said he does not remember ever writing that kind of message to an attorney.) Hammond says she began asking colleagues whether the organization was participating in a kickback scheme, and she was eventually fired in 2013. “SNAP is a commercial operation motivated by its directors’ and officers’ personal and ideological animus against the Catholic Church,” reads the lawsuit. It alleges SNAP relies on “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, who was herself a victim of abuse, was also bothered by the group’s alleged habit of ignoring calls from survivors and its emphasis on press and fundraising. When asked in a recent interview why she had waited several years to pursue legal action, Hammond cited an ironic source: She said the movie Spotlight reminded her of what had happened at the organization. “I wanted to get it out in the open,” she said. She also alleges SNAP created a “front foundation” called the Minnesota Center for Philanthropy, which funneled donations to the organization. When asked whether SNAP had ever received money from the foundation, Dorris said she does not reveal funding sources. Hammond is seeking compensatory damages, attorney’s fees, and expenses.

SNAP leaders have long acknowledged they receive donations from attorneys, but they deny participating in a kickback scheme. They say they work closely with lawyers for the sake of victims regardless of money. Clohessy said any kind of quid pro quo would be unacceptable. “SNAP exists to help vulnerable kids and wounded adults and so anything that doesn’t put them first would be unethical,” he said. Legal experts say lawyers are free to make donations, but they are forbidden from sharing or splitting fees in return for being sent referrals. Jeff Anderson, a prominent attorney based in Minnesota who has donated to SNAP, said his “support of SNAP has always been because they support survivors in their recovery.”

The Rev. Thomas Doyle, a priest and well-known victims’ advocate, recently published his own commentary on the lawsuit, noting that Anderson and the attorneys who work on these sex abuse cases “are not stupid. To get engaged in a kickback scheme would be stupid and, worse, it would be professionally suicidal.” SNAP’s managing director Dorris added, “If there was a kickback scheme, we’d have piles of cash stacked around here, and we don’t. We help any attorney who asks us to help them whether they give us any money or not.” In 2015, SNAP reported close to $500,000 in revenue, which is a relatively modest sum for an organization of its size. Voice of the Faithful, a nonprofit that resembles SNAP, has disclosed operating with about the same amount of revenue.

This isn’t the first time that SNAP has been tested. For years, critics have assailed its controversial tactics and how, in the interest of pursuing the truth and holding church leaders accountable, the group seems to hound accused perpetrators. Critics say, out of fealty to victims, it operates under a guilty-until-proven-innocent model, releasing statements about alleged pedophiles before thoroughly investigating. Brian J. Clites, who wrote his dissertation on Chicago’s clergy sex abuse survivors, says SNAP’s aggressive strategy distinguishes it from other groups that advocate for victims. “I do know many victims are incredibly thankful for them even as other victims are weary of their approach,” he said in an interview.

Russell Saltzman, a former Lutheran pastor living in Kansas City, Missouri, who converted to Catholicism, says he’s witnessed SNAP’s contentious tactics firsthand. Saltzman once wrote for the religious journal First Things about a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who in 2004 had been convicted of abuse. According to Saltzman, SNAP released an erroneous fact sheet about the pastor that the organization refused to correct even after he pointed out the mistakes. “There need to be advocates for victims of sexual abuse, but SNAP just isn’t the group to do it,” Saltzman said. “They have no sense of fairness and no real respect for the truth.” Saltzman also calls SNAP’s relationship with lawyers “ethically suspect.” “I don’t think it should happen, and I think it opens up all sorts of conflicts of interest,” Saltzman said.

Others argue that critics of SNAP are simply angry that the organization stands up to powerful institutions like the Catholic Church. Yet even SNAP supporters acknowledge that the latest allegations and departures paint a bleak picture. Tony Jannotta, a deacon in the Catholic Church who previously worked with SNAP, calls Hammond’s lawsuit an attempt to “malign two heroic people.” But he worries about the future of the organization and its leadership. “Personally, I don’t see the likes of Barbara Blaine and David Clohessy emerging from the current SNAP organization. I don’t know if it’s ever going to be as robust and high profile” as it once was, he said.

Dave O’Regan, a sexual abuse survivor and SNAP leader in Boston, says members of his support group have also expressed anxiety about the future of the organization, but he has felt reassured by what’s happened since the high-profile departures. “When I saw that Barbara Dorris was going to take over the day-to-day managing I felt very good,” O’Regan said. “Change is just a natural part of any organization.” O’Regan, whose memories of abuse came flooding back to him in 2002 at the age of 52, says he volunteers for the organization because it gave so much to him at what he describes as the lowest point in his life. He says he believes activists like Clohessy have a right to step down after working for decades and saving more lives than they know. “I take them at their word that they’re going to come out on top of this,” O’Regan said. Ann Hagan Webb, a Rhode Island SNAP spokesperson and survivor, echoed those views, calling the lawsuit “bizarre and completely unfounded.” Both Webb and O’Regan say SNAP is needed as much as ever, in part because the movie Spotlight inspired another wave of relatively young survivors to come forward.

Dorris is currently SNAP’s only full-time staff member, though she hopes to hire help. She says increased awareness has led victims to come forward earlier and that the organization will focus on helping a broader array of people, including a variety of religious groups such as Mennonites and Mormons, as well as certain secular organizations. Left to tackle are also statutes of limitations laws in a number of states that discourage abuse victims from going to authorities.

Clohessy, for his part, hopes to leave behind the heavy burden of advocacy work that’s he’s carried for decades. He is looking forward to spending more time with his family. But there is one thought that still lingers: Clohessy wishes SNAP had been more vocal and persistent in the early years, before the pattern of abuse in the Catholic Church was so well-known. He said, “Think about all the abuse that could have been prevented if somehow we had figured out a way to convince people that we weren’t crazy.”

Lilly Fowler is a journalist living in Seattle. Follow her @LillyAFowler.



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