(RNS) The head of a major advocacy group for children sexually abused by clergy said the organization will not change course despite the departure of its two founders and a lawsuit filed last month alleging SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, colluded with lawyers to refer clients and profit from settlements.
“We’re really not talking about anything changing,” said Mary Ellen Kruger, chair of the five-member board of directors of SNAP. “Our everyday mission is the same: helping survivors, protecting kids through education, and exposing predators. So that’s not changed.”
If anything, she said in a telephone interview from St. Louis, the organization is trying to build up its local chapters to strengthen its core mission as a support group for victims and their families.
Kruger said it also wants to continue to expand beyond its original focus on the Catholic Church (SNAP began nearly 30 years ago as a response to priest abuse cases) to include chapters with victims from other churches and religions.
“Being out there in the public is obviously not the greater part of what we do. It is part of it,” Kruger said.
But she added that the public advocacy that SNAP became known for, especially as the clergy abuse scandal snowballed after 2002, “is going to be determined by what’s going on in each city or what’s coming across the news.”
“The information has to be out there for us to react to it.”
Right now, SNAP itself is the focus of the news on this topic, and not the way the organization intended.
Last month, a former employee, Gretchen Rachel Hammond, filed a wrongful termination lawsuit claiming that SNAP “does not focus on protecting or helping survivors — it exploits them.”
Hammond alleged the group, which more than any other is responsible for revealing the scandals that have continued to rock Catholicism in the U.S. and around the world, “routinely accepts financial kickbacks from attorneys in the form of ‘donations.’”
Hammond, who worked on fundraising for SNAP from 2011 until 2013, said she feared reprisals from the group's leaders over her objections to the lawyers’ payments and suffered serious health problems as a result. She said that she was fired in 2013, allegedly because she confronted her bosses over their practices with victims’ attorneys, and that the dismissal has hurt her career.
Those are explosive allegations, and SNAP leaders – including Kruger – have said they are completely unfounded.
But a week after that suit was filed, one of SNAP’s first and most active leaders, David Clohessy, announced he had recently left his role as executive director. Then last Saturday (Feb. 4), Barbara Blaine, who founded the group 29 years ago, revealed that she was leaving, too.
Both said their departures had been in the works and had nothing to do with the lawsuit – claims that were met with skepticism.
Whatever the reason, the loss of Blaine and Clohessy, who were the public faces of SNAP for decades, represents a major upheaval for the organization, even leaving aside the legal threat.
In her farewell email to supporters, Blaine portrayed the personnel moves as part of SNAP’s natural transition “from a founder led organization to one that is board led.”
Speaking to RNS, Kruger did not detail how giving the five-member board greater oversight might change SNAP’s operations or management style.
She said the organization has a good, professional staff and a new headquarters in St. Louis; it recently moved from Chicago, where Blaine lives.
SNAP’s new director, Barb Dorris, a longtime staffer who will now be in charge of day-to-day operations, has been working to launch a chapter on Long Island and in Atlanta. The group recently started chapters for Mormons, Mennonites and Baptists who have been abused in each of those denominations or churches.
Kruger said they also want to help those abused in other venues and organizations, such as the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and public and private schools. “The heart and soul of SNAP, since the beginning, is a very dedicated core of volunteer leaders, and that’s not going to change,” she said.
“SNAP is full of vibrant leaders,” Joelle Casteix, the organization’s Western regional director, told Catholic News Service. Casteix said the timing of Blaine’s departure “was not what anyone had planned, but any vibrant organization can always find people to stand up and lead an organization into its next phase.”
Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of Duquesne University School of Law and former chairman of the U.S. Bishops National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Youth, told The Associated Press that SNAP still has a place “in making sure the topic never does get buried again.”
“They'll be relevant as long as the problem is with us,” Cafardi said.