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Survivor groups gain support amid priest scandal

By Bonnie Miller Rubin, Chicago Tribune

April 28, 2002

After years of being dismissed and disparaged for trying to call attention to priests who molest children, Barbara Blaine is a bit overwhelmed these days as the world beats a path to her door.

The Chicago attorney is founder of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a group whose Web site is averaging 1,000 hits a day, 10 times more than it did before the sex-abuse scandal exploded in the Catholic Church.

E-mail is pouring in to SNAP from all over the world. And Blaine, from her cluttered office at the Cook County Juvenile Court, is fielding call after call on her cell phone.

Many of the callers are reporters--from Saginaw, Mich., to the BBC in London. Others are victims who need help and want to add their voice to a growing chorus of empowerment. One survivor of abuse even reached Blaine on a predawn run along the lakefront.

Once laboring in near-obscurity and on shoestring budgets, SNAP and other survivor groups are finally getting their due--or, some would say, their vindication.

"It makes me happy that so many people are finding us," said Blaine, who, seared by her own childhood abuse, started the group in 1988 in a south suburban Holiday Inn. "But it also makes me incredibly sad that so many were molested ... that there's so much healing to be done."

Although SNAP is the largest organization of its kind, with 4,000 members, two other groups--The Linkup and Survivors Connections, which maintains a database of perpetrators--also are being swamped with new attention.

"I prayed for this day, but I never thought it would come," said Rev. Gary Hayes, acting president of The Linkup. "God must have a hand in it.... The bishops didn't, so it must be him."

For years, people who spoke out about abuse by priests were accused of everything from outright lying to trying to destroy the church.

But since the story broke that a Boston priest had molested more than 130 boys while being moved from parish to parish, the landscape has shifted dramatically, inspiring victims who had hidden the abuse they suffered to come forward.

Mark Serrano, 36, a former altar boy, recently divulged his own seven-year nightmare despite having agreed to a confidential 1987 settlement with the diocese of Paterson, N.J. He said he was moved to speak by the recent allegations and the example of other SNAP volunteers, said Serrano, now living in Leesburg, Va.

"These are the true warriors for justice," Serrano said of the early pioneers who worked to raise awareness. "They were out there--for no personal gain--when no one else was. Without them, there would be even more suffering."

`We have to be available'

With no budget or paid staff, SNAP has been limping along for years on not much more than passion--although a recent spike in donations will certainly ease some of the financial burdens. (No one who can't afford the $25 membership fee has ever been turned away.)

Some victims have never breathed a word about their past--even to spouses. They don't know if they should contact their parish, a lawyer, a therapist or all three--which is why Blaine would never consider pulling the plug on her answering machine.

"When someone is in crisis mode, we have to be available ... even if it's only for a few minutes."

But given the recent events, responding to everyone has been all but impossible, a fact that causes her some anguish.

"I know how much courage it takes to reach out," she said.

Now 45 and an assistant Cook County public guardian in Patrick Murphy's office, Blaine said her own saga began on a well-scrubbed block in Toledo, Ohio. She was one of eight children, and her life revolved on the axis of church and family. Her father was head of the parish council and coached the baseball team; her mom channeled her energy into the Altar and Rosary Society. Her siblings all attended parochial school.

"It wasn't unusual for us to be there seven days a week," she said. "It was the place we felt secure."

But in 1969, the summer she turned 13, everything changed. That was when her priest--the same one who came to her home each week to bring Communion to her grandmother--molested her, Blaine said. When she balked at what they were doing, he told her that "Jesus would forgive anything," and that they would be married in heaven, so they could "spend eternity together," Blaine recalled.

It didn't end until she was 17, she said. "That's when I told him we couldn't do anything sexual anymore. He became very angry."

Ashamed, she kept the secret until June 1985, when she was 29. Then she read a story in the National Catholic Reporter, an independent newspaper, on abuse by clergy, which triggered a torrent of emotion. "That's when I realized that this thing had a major impact on my life and I needed help dealing with it."

She started clipping stories about abuse, hunting down the reporter or attorney and asking them to pass along her name and number to the victim. Bit by bit, she established a phone network that led to that first meeting in a motel conference room, where 20 bruised souls convened for nothing more than to connect with kindred spirits.

It wasn't as if Blaine hadn't tried to sort things out on her own. In October 1985, she confronted the leaders of the order of priests that ran her parish--and was devastated by the chilly response. Officials suggested that perhaps she had "misinterpreted" the priest's affections, and they left him in the ministry, where he went on to molest others, Blaine said. The priest was eventually defrocked, according to news reports.

By the time she considered legal action, the statute of limitations had expired, but in 1994 she reached an out-of-court settlement with the Toledo diocese.

"My entire family looked up to them, and in a time of crisis, they ignored us," Blaine said of the order. "When I think of all the time, energy and money--everything went into protecting him, and no one cared about me."

Going on with her life

Still, she knows she is luckier than many victims, who often suffer from broken relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide attempts. Blaine was resilient enough to get a bachelor's degree from St. Louis University, followed by a master's degree in social work from Washington University.

She worked as a lay missionary in Jamaica before moving to Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood in 1983 to take a job with Pax Christi, an international Catholic peace movement, followed by a decadelong position with the Catholic Worker, a social service agency. She also opened a homeless facility in a convent at the now-shuttered Little Flower Catholic Church on the South Side.

"I've always been attracted to people who had more problems than I did," she said.

The idea of advocating for those marginalized by society led her to enroll at DePaul University School of Law, where she received her degree at 39, followed by a two-year clerkship at the public guardian's office. Her own experiences, she believes, have made her more sensitive to the neglected and abused children who are represented by the piles of folders stacked everywhere in her fourth-floor office.

Although many of the recent headlines have focused on priests abusing boys, half of SNAP's membership is female. Viewing abuse of boys as more egregious than a male authority figure taking advantage of girls is a double standard and should stop, Blaine said.

The archdiocese of Chicago--regarded as progressive in some quarters when it comes to handling allegations of sexual misconduct--could do far more, according to SNAP. The organization argues that all names of perpetrators, living or dead, should be made public; victims should be released from confidentiality agreements; and all records should be turned over to law enforcement.

Despite her disappointment and disillusionment, Blaine remains a devout Catholic. "They took so much from me ... but they couldn't take my faith."

Next month, she will wed for the first time.

Still, a palpable sadness lingers.

"I didn't date. I didn't go out for the school musical. I didn't do a lot of things because he wanted me to be available for him," she said of her priest. "He used to tell me that I was holier than the other girls. God, what I'd give to get those years back."

Copyright © 2002, Chicago Tribune

Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests