- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Fearless advocates. Vicious enemies. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests has been called a variety of names — positive and negative — in the last quarter century.

On Friday what’s projected to be the largest conference in SNAP’s history is set to begin in Chicago, where members of the 19,000-strong advocacy group that has been the leading voice in the Catholic Church’s priest abuse scandal plan to discuss the challenges and triumphs of the past year, and usher in the next 25 years under what leaders say is a “cautiously optimistic” view.

“It does feel like we’ve come a long way,” said David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director. “At the risk of sounding cliche, we’ve all seen just the tip of this devastating iceberg that doesn’t ever seem to shrink in size.”

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Unlike the first year of the Survivors Network, which Mr. Clohessy said was little more than an answering machine and a post office box, the advocacy group now has numerous prosecutors, advocates and victims that are part of their ongoing fight against clergy abuse.

“The most encouraging milestones have been when secular authorities … either investigated or exposed cover-ups and reformed archaic, predator-friendly laws,” Mr. Clohessy said. “When those things happen, that’s what really encourages us more than anything.”

SNAP was born at a much grimmer time in 1988 under the leadership of Barbara Blaine, herself a sex abuse victim. For two years the roughly two dozen members kept in touch by phone and through letters. In 1991, SNAP held its first meeting in Chicago and the following year, Mr. Clohessy, also a sex-abuse victim, joined the network.

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“Initially, all we did was help victims heal, because that was all we could do,” Mr. Clohessy said, his voice breaking. “For years we could rarely get police, prosecutors, journalists, church officials, to even return a phone call.”

In 2002, the environment shifted dramatically when the Boston Globe began its coverage of the criminal prosecution of several area Catholic priests. By 2010 clergy sex abuse was a full-blown international scandal.

Attorney Jeff Anderson, who’s represented a number of clergy sex-abuse victims, admitted SNAP had its fair share of “controversial folks,” however, “there is no group or set of people in this nation … that’s done more to expose wrongdoers and institutional failures.”

“They are controversial because they stand up, speak out, and encourage survivors to do so,” he said. “Their fearlessness and rigor is largely uncompromising, it makes a lot of people unhappy. But the ones most unhappy are the ones that deserve to be called out and exposed.”

Catholic League President Bill Donohue said he’s just as eager to see justice, but complains that SNAP has become “unhinged” in its campaign against the church.

In the context of Catholic sex abuse, most of the cases occurred from the mid-1960s to mid-1980s, he explained.

“Then of course there was a major push for reform, but most of the damage had been done,” Mr. Donohue said. “They could have declared somewhat of a victory, that they had a role in giving the church a kind of wake-up call. Instead of saying, ‘Wow, major changes are taking place,’ they’ve become increasingly irrational.”

Looking ahead at the next 25 years, Mr. Clohessy said SNAP will continue to reach out to the broader international community, as well as other denominations and organizations to advocate for victims.

Mr. Clohessy said funding is also a constant challenge for the group’s advocacy efforts, but the effort is worth it.

“We’re constantly reminding struggling victims and disenchanted churchgoers and potential whistleblowers that in fact, despite all the set backs, progress is possible.”

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