CHICAGO — Long before the country became outraged by reports that the Catholic Church had covered up sexual abuse by priests, Barbara Blaine founded a small group of abuse survivors in a homeless shelter in Chicago.
When it began, in 1988, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests was a small group seeking support and healing.
“I knew there were other survivors out there and wondered if they felt the same debilitating hurt and if so, how they coped with it,’’ Ms. Blaine said in a statement in February. “I thought they might hold the wisdom I lacked. I looked for other survivors and asked if they would be willing to talk.”
Almost three decades later, the organization known as SNAP is considered by many Catholic observers to be the nation’s most potent advocacy group for victims of clergy abuse. SNAP now has more than 20,000 members, and support groups meet in more than 60 cities across the United States and the world.
Ms. Blaine, who served for nearly 30 years as president of the group she founded, died Sunday in St. George, Utah. She was 61. The cause was a sudden tear in a blood vessel in her heart, which she suffered Sept. 18 after going hiking on a vacation, her husband, Howard Rubin, said. She lived in Chicago.
“I don’t think any of us thought when we started that we would still be doing it now,” Ms. Blaine told the Globe in 2014, when a tour marking the group’s 25 years of work stopped in Boston. “I never imagined that there were so many kids sexually violated by priests.”
In a statement, SNAP managing director Barbara Dorris praised Ms. Blaine’s work with victims.
‘‘Few people have done more to protect kids and help victims than Barbara Blaine,’’ Dorris said. ‘‘Her contributions to a safer society would be hard to overstate.’’
Ms. Blaine founded SNAP years after she was abused as a teenager in Toledo, Ohio, by a priest who she said had convinced her that she was an “evil temptress.”
As SNAP evolved, Ms. Blaine told the Globe, it became clear its mission should expand to include advocacy as well as support. Bishops in their respective dioceses had told each group member that he or she was the only one to come forward. At that point, Ms. Blaine and some others decided to go public.
“We realized empowerment could come from preventing others from being raped,” she said.
When the group first approached church leaders, Ms. Blaine said, members were stunned by the response.
“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.”
SNAP pressed on, lobbying state legislatures to extend the statute of limitations for child sex abuse cases, urging victims to come forward, and pressuring a UN committee to investigate the Vatican’s handling of such abuse cases.
In a historic hearing before a human rights committee in Geneva two months before Ms. Blaine spoke in Boston, the Vatican was forced for the first time to defend its record in public and at length. The church insisted it had little jurisdiction to sanction pedophile priests.
‘‘When they say that these crimes should be prosecuted by states, it seems so disingenuous because we know that the church officials at the state level obstruct those efforts to bring justice,’’ said Ms. Blaine, who was in Switzerland for the hearing.
In its report, the panel called on the Vatican to remove child abusers from its ranks, report them to law enforcement, and open church archives so that clergy who concealed crimes could be held accountable.
Although Ms. Blaine was not a frequent presence among SNAP members in Boston, the organization she founded was a vital force in the lives of local survivors and provided a training ground for activists such as Phil Saviano, who established the organization’s New England chapter.
Saviano and others in the New England chapter, along with Ms. Blaine and former SNAP national director David Clohessy, were important sources during the Globe Spotlight Team’s investigation of the coverup of clergy sexual abuse in the Boston Archdiocese.
In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops asked Ms. Blaine and Clohessy to address them at a pivotal meeting in Dallas. American bishops eventually adopted a zero-tolerance policy and pledged to remove priests credibly accused of abuse. But since then SNAP has often accused bishops of failing to keep these promises, and the group continues to be seen by the church as an adversarial force.
Ms. Blaine resigned from SNAP in February. She did not give a reason, but she and other SNAP officials were sued in January by a former employee who said she was fired after asking superiors whether the organization was referring potential clients to attorneys in return for donations.
Barbara Ann Blaine was born on July 6, 1956, and grew up Toledo. She received a bachelor’s degree from Saint Louis University, a master’s degree in social work from Washington University in St. Louis, and a master of divinity degree from the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She was able to attend law school, at DePaul University, with money she received in a settlement with the church.
Besides her husband, she leaves her stepsons, Brett and Joshua Rubin; two step-grandsons; three brothers; and four sisters, one of them her twin.
Ms. Blaine’s death prompted an emotional outpouring from survivors around the world, her husband said.
“I’m hearing from people who are saying, ‘She saved my life,’” he said.
Material from The New York Times and the Associated Press and was used in this obituary.