When Barbara Blaine founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in a Chicago homeless shelter she ran in 1988, it was a small group looking for support and healing.
It was more than a decade before public outrage at sex abuse in the Catholic church peaked in the early 2000s, and SNAP’s members had few people they could turn to except each other.
Twenty-five years later, the organization is considered by many Catholic observers to be the main American advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse. But support groups remain at the core of SNAP’s work.
“I don’t think any of us thought when we started that we would still be doing it now,” said Blaine, who visited Boston on Sunday as part of a tour marking the group’s quarter-century of work. “I never imagined that there were so many kids sexually violated by priests.”
Blaine was invited to Boston by child advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children, or MassKids, which hosted an afternoon of lectures at the New England School of Law to mark SNAP’s anniversary.
Blaine said in a phone interview that as the group evolved, it became evident that its mission needed to expand to include advocacy as well as supporting victims. The members realized that the bishops in their respective dioceses had told each of them that they were the only ones to come forward. So some, including Blaine, decided to go public.
“We realized empowerment could come from preventing others from being raped,” she said. But when the group first went to church leaders, Blaine said they were stunned by the resistance they encountered.
“I naively thought officials would want to rid the church of this type of evil,” she said. “I didn’t think this was something that was known about and tolerated by officials.”
Largely rebuffed by the Vatican, SNAP instead lobbied state legislatures to extend the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases, encouraged victims to speak out, and, recently, helped pressure a UN committee to investigate the Vatican’s handling of such cases.
But for Blaine, the best moments of the past 25 years were not splashy headlines.
“It’s been the moments when survivors find out they’re not alone or find hope, or when perpetrators are removed from ministries,” she said.
Jetta Bernier, executive director of MassKids, said that although abuse by priests represents only a fraction of all child abuse cases, SNAP deserved praise for sounding the alarm about sex abuse in the church years before public attention focused on the issue — and for continuing after it faded.
“This is not a scandal that went away overnight,” Bernier said. “It continues to deepen. More and more survivors are coming forward.”
Before Sunday’s lectures, Blaine stopped by the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston’s South End, where SNAP members have held protests every Sunday for more than 12 years.
“We’ve had people here on the sidewalk since Jan. 6, 2002, when the Globe article came out,” said local SNAP member Paul Kellen, remembering the publication of an investigative series that sparked widespread outrage.
Blaine said that while SNAP was hardly surprised by the Globe’s finding that the church had helped cover up abuse — it had been making the same accusation for years — she was shocked by the sheer number of victims who came forward following the series.
“There’s definitely something special about the courage of victims from Boston speaking out and telling their stories,” she said.
Kellen admitted that the Sunday crowd of protesters, once a larger group that included many victims of sexual abuse, had dwindled down to a handful of diehards.
“I remember them [abuse survivors] saying, ‘The day is going to come when we won’t be here, but we know you’ll be here,’ ” Kellen said, explaining why he continues the weekly vigil.
Blaine’s visit came one day after Pope Francis named Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston to a new Vatican antiabuse commission. While some tout O’Malley as a reformer, SNAP has criticized him for not posting the names of accused Boston priests who belong to religious orders. Blaine said she is deeply skeptical of his appointment.
“We think that Cardinal O’Malley needs to hold his brother bishops accountable,” Blaine said outside the Holy Cross church. “The time for secrecy and cover-ups is over.”
Phil Saviano, a leader with SNAP’s New England chapter who came forward as an abuse victim in a 1993 Globe article, was more hopeful.
“I think the fact that there’s a commission is a good thing,” he said. “Let’s hope that they act quickly, let’s hope they come up with some good recommendations, and let’s hope the pope has the courage to put those good recommendations into effect.”