Although she had already climbed mountains for the victims of child sex abuse, Barbara Blaine, founder of SNAP, passed away before she had achieved all that she could. Since the 1980s, her sights had been set on ending child sex abuse in the United States Catholic Church. Even before SNAP, her mission was to help the vulnerable, whether they were the homeless or the abused. She stepped down as president of SNAP earlier this year to head the Accountability Project, which would have expanded her focus to the globe. I have no doubt it, too, would have changed the world.
As the current president of SNAP, Barbara Dorris, has said, it is difficult to “overstate” what Barbara did for the movement of child sex abuse victims, families, friends, and advocates. She set the Catholic Church on its heels about the sexual abuse of children by its very own priests. SNAP is the largest organization of survivors sexually abused by Catholic priests. In turn, the Church is the largest religious organization in the world and has been behind the legion of victims. It is a fitting–perhaps necessary—place to start if we are going to deal with the truth so that we can end child sex abuse, find justice for the victims, and identify the dangerous.
Led by the fortuitous partnership of Barbara Blaine and David Clohessy, SNAP inserted the sex abuse crisis into the national and then the international conversation. Trained in theology and the law, Barbara was the ideal person to be the public face criticizing the bishops’ handling of the issue, and David was a perfect complement as a gifted public relations strategist. He crafted the message and she delivered it with power, often holding a picture of herself as a child at the age the Toledo, Ohio, priest perpetrator first assaulted her. They collaborated toward one end: disclose the Catholic bishops’ reckless practices endangering children and force change. There can be no debate that they were monumentally successful. It is not that the Church has done all it can and should but rather that everyone understands it has a serious problem that cannot be hidden any longer. They dragged those secrets from under the carpet and then glued the carpet to the ground. There was no going back once they started.
It is insufficient to say that they were David to the Church’s Goliath. They were ants facing the angry waters of a river filled to overflowing by a hurricane. What must be remembered is that this duo, with few resources and no formal training, publicly and loudly and repeatedly attacked this monumental institution for creating the conditions for heinous crimes against children. It is a miracle that they were not quickly washed away by angry, defensive bishops grasping power, protecting wealth, and shielding reputation.
The usual epithet was thrown at them: “anti-Catholic.” It stuck with many older Catholics, but younger generations have been more likely to see the truth, which is that they were saving the Church from itself.
What Barbara did for sex abuse victims, however, extends well beyond the Catholic Church. The subsequent roll-out of abuse allegations in many other corners of society is a direct result of their hammering home the paradigm of child sex abuse as presented in the Church: a bishop discovers a pedophile priest in his midst, ignores or intimidates the child victim, and moves the priest so no one else learns about him. Then when the priest offends again, he’s moved again, and new unsuspecting children are abused. Take away the bishop and the priest and you still have adults learning about a colleague sexually abusing children and then acting on motives of institutional and self-protection that lead to more sex abuse. The model they set forth in the media framed the issue for everyone.
As they seared this model into our memories, from the mist emerged the pattern in so many other contexts: other religious settings, private and public schools, sports, and scouting organizations. We literally could not see what was happening around us until Barbara and David showed us.
As proof of their effectiveness, well-funded defenders of the Church relentlessly attacked them, and lawsuits were initiated against SNAP with the obvious goal of shutting it (and them) down. Having fought for decades, both stepped down earlier this year to pursue other opportunities. It was time for a change, and Barbara predictably was intent on taking the fight to the next level.
Barbara was taken far too soon, but no one can rob us of her extraordinary achievements in child protection. She told the simple, hard truth, and the truth set millions of child sex abuse victims free from darkness. I can tell you, though, what she would be telling us right now: “Get back to work. We’re not done.”