Metro

Suit alleges anti-clergy sex abuse group got kickbacks from lawyers

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a leading voice in the campaign against clergy sexual abuse, is facing a wrongful-termination lawsuit from a former fund-raiser who says the group “accepts financial kickbacks” from lawyers who represent survivors they find through the organization.

The lawsuit against St. Louis-based SNAP, which provides counseling for victims of clerical sex abuse, says that fund-raiser Gretchen Rachel Hammond was terminated after she raised concerns about money the group received from lawyers representing SNAP members.

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“Instead of recommending that survivors pursue what is in their best personal, emotional, and financial interest, SNAP pressures survivors to pursue costly and stressful litigation against the Catholic Church,” the lawsuit says.

Barbara Dorris, SNAP’s outreach director, said the allegation of a kickback scheme between the organization and attorneys who represent its members is untrue.

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“We haven’t ever done it, and we won’t do it. It’s absolutely untrue,” she said, noting that “there’s nothing illegal, unethical, or immoral about accepting donations from attorneys.”

Hammond’s lawsuit, filed in Chicago, SNAP’S former headquarters, comes at a time when David Clohessy, the organization’s longtime executive director, has resigned. Clohessy was often quoted in stories written by the Globe Spotlight Team when it was exposing the coverup of sexual abuse by Catholic priests.

But Mary Ellen Kruger, who chairs SNAP’s board of directors, said Clohessy informed the board in October that he was resigning effective Dec. 31, even though the group did not announce his departure until earlier this week. “It had absolutely nothing to do with the lawsuit,” she said.

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Phil Saviano, a former SNAP board member and founder of the group’s New England Chapter, said the organization has no arrangement under which SNAP makes referrals to attorneys in return for donations.

“If there is a plan, it’s been poorly organized, because as long as I’ve been involved with them they’ve been hurting for money,” Saviano said.

The nonprofit group’s most recent disclosure to the IRS says it had just over $100,000 in net assets at the close of 2014. At the time, Clohessy was receiving a salary of $86,000, as was president Barbara Blaine.

Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who has represented clergy abuse survivors for two decades, said he was puzzled by the filing earlier this month because SNAP has relatively few assets.

“I have to wonder why this lawsuit was filed, given that SNAP would not have any funds to pay a judgment favorable to the plaintiff,” he said.

Garabedian acknowledged making donations to SNAP, but said his contributions are no different from the contributions he makes to other organizations that help survivors.

“Giving to charities is an integral part of representing victims of clergy sexual abuse,” he said. “Many victims are destitute and without food and shelter.”

The lawsuit says Hammond worked for SNAP from July 2011 until February 2013 and received a raise — to $66,000 from $60,000 — because of her performance. Subsequently, however, Hammond discovered the kickback scheme through access she had to Clohessy’s e-mail account and organization documents

The lawsuit says that, at the time SNAP was colluding with attorneys to raise funds, it “never reached out to, or communicated with, grief counselors or rape counselors for the purpose of providing counseling to survivors.”

At one point, the lawsuit says, SNAP “concocted a scheme” to conceal donations from attorneys by encouraging them to make donations to a “front foundation” called the Minnesota Center for Philanthropy, which in turn would make grants to SNAP.

The Globe could not find a charitable organization with that name but Hammond’s lawyer, Chicago attorney Bruce C. Howard, said it’s possible that plans to start the center never got off the ground. The existence of the alleged scheme, he said, is confirmed by documents retained by Hammond while working for SNAP.

The lawsuit says that after Hammond complained to SNAP officials about fund-raising with attorneys, SNAP officials retaliated, in part, by requiring her to make daily reports off her activities to Blaine. As a result, she suffered from stress that led to health problems, including high blood pressure and weight gain.

Howard, Hammond’s attorney, said she waited three years before suing because she initially wanted to put the matter behind her, but changed her mind after seeing the movie “Spotlight,” which chronicles the Globe’s investigation of clergy sex abuse.

“After moving on and seeing ‘Spotlight’ she decided that what was going on at SNAP was wrong and what happened to her was wrong and she decided to take action,” Howard said.

Michael Rezendes can be reached at michael.rezendes@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeRezendes.
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