The daily drumbeat of news about clergy sexual abuse began in Ireland last year. This year, the stories spread — to Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Norway. The drumbeat got louder.
In Chicago and St. Louis, where leaders of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests are based, e-mails from across the ocean continued to pour in. By last month, SNAP decided to respond.
Despite revenue that has declined sharply in the past three years, the U.S.-based nonprofit group dug into its depleted coffers and found $6,000 for two members of its staff to fly across the Atlantic and talk to victims and the European press.
SNAP founder and president Barbara Blaine and outreach director Barbara Dorris spent 10 days opening new SNAP chapters in Germany, Italy, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium and England. They slept on couches, rushed between buses and trains and grabbed snacks on the road. In Germany, they met with the justice minister and members of parliament about changing laws.
In its 22 years, SNAP has seen tremendous success in its mission to protect children. Many credit the group with bringing change to the Catholic church — which tends to resist change — since the clergy abuse crisis erupted in Boston in 2002.
But the organization has also been criticized for the way it raises money, its aggressive pursuit of headlines, and its methods of publicly identifying priests accused of abuse by anonymous plaintiffs.
For the group's leaders, the crisis in Europe feels familiar, in a sickening way. And in recent weeks, e-mails from Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador have begun to arrive.
"People all over the world are struggling to get their minds around this," Dorris said. "They want to know how anyone would have known about a child molester — a church leader — and failed to take action. It feels a lot like the early days here."
THE EARLY DAYS
Blaine reported her own abuse to the church in 1985, and the experience led her to start SNAP three years later. She recognized that victims of clergy sexual abuse and their families needed their own kind of support, and says now that the group's overriding mission is to support victims of sexual abuse at the hands of clergy, and help protect children at risk of abuse.
Clayton lawyer Ken Chackes — whose firm represents plaintiffs in most clergy sexual abuse cases in St. Louis — said SNAP leaders were "extremely generous, minding to people anytime, day or night, and meeting with families about what happened to the victim."
That's the kind of support Mary Ellen Kruger needed when she first heard about SNAP in 2002, at the height of the priest abuse scandal in the United States.
Kruger's son, Stephen Hippe, had been abused by a priest in 1985, when he was a 15-year-old student at Bishop DuBourg High School. Two years later, the Rev. James Funke pleaded guilty to the abuse and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
After years of struggling with depression over what Funke had done to him, Hippe shot himself in the heart in 1991. He was 21.
Funke served five years; in 2006, the Vatican permanently removed him from the priesthood. Today he lives in Dittmer.
After her son's suicide, Kruger joined a bereaved parents group. She contributed to several charitable organizations in her son's name and decorated his grave for every occasion she could think of.
"But it was never enough, and eventually, people become tired of hearing about your son who died," said Kruger, now a SNAP volunteer. "When I found SNAP, they gave me the outlet to do something positive."
AS THE SCANDAL GROWS
The year Kruger discovered SNAP, its leaders were quoted in just about every newspaper story about the abuse crisis. They facilitated relationships between abuse victims, their attorneys and the press, helping to animate a scandal that would spread to every corner of the American church, eventually forcing it to reform.
David Clohessy, the third of SNAP's three full-time staff members and its national director, said the group's founding mission remained the same today, "to expose predators and to protect children."
In pursuit of those goals, SNAP's leaders have been relentless critics of what it considers the Catholic church's policies of secrecy and self-preservation at any cost.
Since 2002, SNAP has kept pressure on the church by alerting reporters to victims' lawsuits, some with depositions and other documents that proved bishops moved problem priests from diocese to diocese. The group has also fought statute of limitations laws the church has used to limit the size of financial settlements. "While it is an exaggeration to say that the priest scandals would not have been reported without SNAP, the group has been central to encouraging victims to talk to the media," said Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association.
Even some U.S. church officials acknowledge that SNAP has made a difference.
Bishop Blase Cupich, head of the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D., and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishop's committee for the Protection of Children and Young People, said SNAP "has done some very important things."
Despite its success, several factors — church reforms, a finite number of lawsuits, waning public interest in a difficult and graphic story — have contributed to a slowdown in donations to the nonprofit group.
SNAP's contributions grew nearly sixfold between 2002 and 2006, when its revenue was more than $900,000, according to IRS records. But the following year, SNAP brought in half that amount. In 2009, revenue fell again, to $420,000, with expenses of $499,000. In the last year, the organization, which has about 9,000 members, moved into a smaller headquarters office in Chicago and cut its treasurer from full time to 10 hours per week.
Blaine works there, in her hometown; Dorris and Clohessy — a former community relations director for the Riverview Gardens School District — live in St. Louis.
Clohessy's own story of abuse made him a natural subject for news profiles during the height of the scandal. He was molested by a priest during a canoe trip when he was 12. His brother, the Rev. Kevin Clohessy, was accused of abuse in 1993 and removed from ministry in 2000. In 2002, David Clohessy sat on Oprah Winfrey's couch, and People magazine put him on its list of "25 Most Intriguing People," alongside Jennifer Aniston, Martha Stewart and Saddam Hussein.
SNAP's critics often claim that its aggressive methods — leafleting the neighborhood around an accused priest's church, or calling news conferences to herald the name of a newly accused priest — are irresponsible. Such tactics, they argue, permanently damage the reputation of a priest falsely or mistakenly accused by an alleged victim who can remain anonymous behind the shield of a John Doe lawsuit.
But Clohessy points out that SNAP does not name a priest unless a civil lawsuit has been filed, or the priest criminally charged or named in the press. He's unapologetic.
"You've got to err on the side of protecting the physical and emotional safety of children rather than the reputation of one adult," Clohessy said.
Many church leaders and other critics also question where SNAP's money comes from. Although nonprofit groups do not pay taxes, they must file annual IRS reports detailing the sources of their donations. Those details are not public, though some nonprofit groups make that information public in other ways, such as annual reports. SNAP doesn't, leading to charges of hypocrisy.
"For an organization that demands transparency from the institutional church, why can't SNAP be open and specific about its sources of funding and its expenses?" said Ned McGrath, director of communications for the Detroit Archdiocese.
The theory among McGrath and other church officials is that victims come to SNAP for support and are directed to law firms that handle clergy sexual abuse claims. Those firms have helped pry more than $2 billion in settlements and judgments from the Catholic church in the United States since 1992. A portion of that money, some church leaders suggest, is kicked back to SNAP in contributions.
Attorney Ken Chackes said some clients got his firm's phone number from SNAP. Chackes said both he and partner Susan Carlson had donated money to SNAP, "like we would to any not-for-profit organization," he said. "We don't have any sort of arrangement with SNAP."
Blaine said the organization protected its list of contributors out of respect for the privacy of victims and declined to provide a list of attorneys or law firms that have contributed to SNAP.
"I don't see us making some major change in exposing our donors," she said.
Legal ethicists said the issue of law firms' contributing to nonprofit advocacy groups that send them business is complicated. They said individual states have provisions allowing lawyers to contribute to nonprofit groups, even if they benefit from referrals. Some said that as long as there is no explicit agreement between attorneys and the nonprofit group, the law firms are in the clear. Others said that regardless of the law, it creates an appearance of impropriety.
PRAISE FOR ITS WORK
If SNAP's success in the United States can be measured by the change it brought to a 2,000-year-old institution, then its accomplishments have been significant.
Few people close to the scandal deny SNAP's impact. Some are more demonstrative. "I kind of feel these people deserve the Nobel Prize," said Terry McKiernan, founder and president of BishopAccountability.org, a database of priests accused of sexually abusing minors. "That's the only thing that could express their achievement."
Although U.S.church officials probably would not go that far, some acknowledge SNAP's impact, even as the organization prepares for its next battle with the Catholic church, this one across oceans.
"The archdiocese and bishops here believe that SNAP can be commended for helping to bring some of this to light," said Monsignor John Shamleffer, judicial vicar for the St. Louis Archdiocese.
Shamleffer said that in the last decade, the archdiocese has started two offices to help protect children, hired an outside firm to perform annual audits tracking compliance with its own policies and does criminal background checks on all clergy and lay staff who work with children.
"We have taken and continued the work that SNAP began, and we're doing that as a diocese," Shamleffer said. "Both the archdiocese and SNAP want same thing — the welfare and protection of children."