Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Barbara Blaine

[This is my latest story appearing in The Wanderer, the nation’s oldest weekly Catholic newspaper. It’s significant, I think, because of a decidedly favorable treatment of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and its founder, Barbara Blaine. The Wanderer was the first newspaper, religious or secular, to report priest and bishop abuse some thirty plus years ago when other newspapers wouldn’t touch the subject. Your comments are welcomed].

CHICAGO—In this largely politically black or white town, most authenticist Catholics who thought of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), viewed it as a liberal organization dedicated to toppling Francis Cardinal George.

But now, increasingly SNAP’s message that little or nothing is being done here to quickly remove priest predators, is winning adherents as more people recognize the failings of this archdiocese and are demanding action. Not that rank-and-few congregants want George out—but they want something done on priest abuse: and SNAP seems to be the only game in town.

In the wake of criticism of the archdiocese here, a clearer view of SNAP is coming into focus. In an interview with The Wanderer last week, both founder Barbara Blaine who lives here and national director David Clohessy of St. Louis pointed out that

SNAP is concerned only with rectifying priest abuses and, unlike “Voice of the Faithful” or “Call to Action,” does not take positions on any divisive issues affecting the Church such as ordination of women priests, changes in celibacy or any auxiliary issues affecting theology or philosophy;

Runs self-help programs for victims in volunteer meetings similar to Alcoholics Anonymous;

Acknowledges it has received financial support from trial lawyers but only 18 percent has come from lawyers and

Has some problems with Illinois Appellate Justice Anne Burke (I think possibly unfairly) for seemingly stressing some difficulties in affecting change in the religious orders.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came when it was divulged routinely by the Sun-Times that the archdiocese’s own Review Board had recommended removal of Fr. Daniel McCormack which was ignored by the archdiocese—following which the priest was placed under criminal indictment for sexually molesting three children. The disclosure was made by the state director of Children and Family Services, which the archdiocese subsequently admitted and produced a new wave of criticism. The spontaneous gathering of supporters of Cardinal George on the steps of Holy Name Cathedral was held before the disclosure was known. News of the spurned recommendation caused some supporters of George to say they were misled.

The disregarded recommendations cast doubt on whether the so-called new procedures of the archdiocese to prevent and correct abuse are working—especially when they are being implemented by the same old bureaucratic faces which have disregarded action earlier, a view SNAP has long held.

I conducted two extensive interviews with the two main leaders of SNAP. The first, outlined in this issue, was with its founder, Barbara Blaine the Chicago woman who was abused by a priest when she was a child in Toledo many years ago. The first thing I learned from both Blaine and David Clohessy of St. Louis, the director, is that SNAP in no way supports radical groups prescribing a total change of rubrics and canon law as does Voice of the Faithful or Call to Action. It does not take a position whatsoever on celibacy in the Church, on female priests, married priests. So far as I can determine it has a single mission: to secure justice for victims, assuredly, but beyond that—to protect children from further abuse. It sponsors self-help sessions for those abused and is quite tough on prelates who meet with it, promising action and then revert to the old clerical game of relying on the bureaucracy.

That’s what’s happened in Chicago, says Blaine. And dissatisfied with queasy parsing of answers from Cardinal George she and her organization has called for his resignation. Not that she’ll get it, not that the Church will bow or should bow to a pressure group, but she calls for it anyhow. And in Chicago it’s plain that the atmosphere has changed from one of anger against anyone who would ask George to resign, to anger and frustration by many Catholics, authenticists as well, who can’t understand why the first issue with this archdiocese is protection of priests before protection of children.

Blaine is an articulate 45-year-old lawyer, with a masters in social work and a masters in theology, married for the past three years (first and only time) to a DePaul university law professor. She’s frequently called upon in radio and television newscasts and panel shows to outline the organization’s position. She grew up one of eight kids in a solidly authenticist Catholic family in Toledo where mother and father stood by the church, defending it from attack, belonging to appropriately-named Pius X parish, the parish founded before Pius was canonized with “Blessed Pius X” etched on the cornerstone (Pius was canonized on May 29, 1954).

Blaine sipped her iced tea and looked back wistfully at the time decades ago when young men idolized the priesthood and young women the religious sisters or being mothers of large families. In her family the notion of a priest coming to visit at their home would send her mother scurrying to clean the front room and get out the best china. She went to Catholic grade school and along with her girl friends worked around the school and rectory—mimeographing for the school and stapling the parish Sunday bulletins.

In that parish, priests were treated as representatives of Christ but one, a hardy, 45-year-old athletic, witty assistant who gave extraordinarily influential and solid homilies was particularly revered. When she was 12, and he got friendly she was flattered. Then when he became too familiar, she became confused. They never had sex but his hands were all over her. When he told her he loved her and Christ was such a forgiving God He would wash away any sin in an outpouring of ineffable love, she became dazed, it conflicting with what she understood from her catechism.

He told her she should become a nun and that after they both died—the priest and Barbara—they would meet in heaven and become man and wife there with the beneficent Lord looking on. Moreover he enabled her to think that it was partially her fault that he was interested in her—which spurred guilt for decades.

He stressed: This would be their secret which they would keep from all others, including her parents. When she wanted to go to confession because she was overwhelmed with guilt, he urged her not to go to his church because his priest associates who would hear her would not understand—but go to a neighboring church. She went to a nearby church where the confessor did not remark upon her confession unduly.

As she looks back on it now, she was enveloped in guilt, did not believe he was doing anything wrong but blamed herself for causing difficulties for a priest and fearful of what her parents would say. She grew up, went into social work, then went to a convent where she was a postulant but left. She went to Jamaica as a church worker among the poor.

Then to Chicago at a Catholic Worker House. There she happened to see a newspaper containing a story about priest sexual abuse. She confided, for the first time, to an associate who said “why, you were abused!” She went back home to Toledo and told her parents. They and she confronted the priest. He stuttered, grew angry, denied all and then with a rush of words tried to insist that when he kissed her she was an adult, forgetting his earlier words that he had not made a move on her. He admitted all.

They went to the bishop. He said this was the first case involving this priest and that he would send him away for therapy. Blaine received $88,000 in a mediated settlement (no law suit) from the Toledo diocese. The bishop said the priest would go to therapy and then be assigned as a hospital chaplain and undergo continuous monitoring.

Subsequently, she determined to improve her education and went to St. Louis University for under-grad degree and a master’s in social work, went to Chicago’s Catholic Theological Union where she got a master’s in theology and finally to DePaul law school after which she was admitted to the bar. She found that the experience of her youth hampered her from ever trusting, ever having a tender relationship with a man: similar things that have happened to other victims.

The dissimulation of the Toledo bishop came to be known after her father had a stroke and went to a Toledo Catholic hospital. She flew to Toledo immediately to see him. He told her with great anxiety that the priest who abused her was the chaplain and that he did not want to have this priest come to his room. Barbara didn’t either because with her father in a bad way, any emotional upset could be fatal.

So standing by her father’s bedside, Blaine phoned the chaplain’s office, talked to a nun there and requested that the priest not visit her father. The nun asked why not. Because, Blaine said, the priest is being monitored for preying on a child—me, when I was a child. You’re wrong, said the nun, this priest is not being monitored. The words of the bishop came back to Blaine as a patent and cynical lie. Investigating further, Blaine found that he had made advances to a number of girls in her school, all with the same line: they should wait for him in heaven where they would be married with Christ looking on.

Meanwhile her legal career advanced, beginning with a clerkship for a Circuit judge here, then a post as legal adviser to the Cook county child guardian who gained a national reputation defending children against all kinds of abuse. Meanwhile, she began SNAP in 1989 by word-of-mouth, then networking, reading stories of priest sexual abuse and following up with the victims. The meetings held here and at other places in the country are not therapy—it’s along the lines of Alcoholics Anonymous, with each victim describing the outrages and the group working together to assuage guilt. The organization grew as Blaine went to the media to publicize it. Some money came in from victims and their families, enough to pay Blaine a modest salary and a salary to a national director, another abuse victim, who lives in St. Louis as well as some clerical support.

While lawyers contribute to SNAP, their donations are not dominant, she said, and stand at about 18 percent of the organization’s budget. Surprisingly, she finds Illinois Appellate Court Justice Anne Burke, a vocal critic of Cardinal George, herself too involved in bureaucracy. Burke told her bishops have no jurisdiction over religious orders. This angers Blaine, seeing it as a kind of evasion—but in this Blaine shows impatience rather than understanding that religious orders are not under the jurisdiction of the bishops. When I told her Burke is right, she looked at me skeptically and with impatience, as if to say she’s tired of such bureaucratic answers. Yet that is the answer and a way to end abuse by religious order priests must be take a different path than from the bishops.

I asked her how the imbroglio has affected her practice of Catholicism. She acknowledges that it has, says she goes to church some Sundays, not others (different from abuse victim Clohessy who has left the Church altogether).

Dissatisfaction with the way Cardinal George has handled the priest abuse problem has prompted promises of tougher control but the bureaucracy looks the same. Jimmy Lago, the lay chancellor, has been put in charge—but not only Barbara Blaine but a good many Catholic authenticists say: what is this? Lago is the guy who was in charge before and look what happened! He’s a bureaucrat who moved up during the era of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin. There’s no change here!

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, Chicago’s foremost priest voice, Fr. Andrew Greeley, novelist and Sun-Times, the only priest in the nation with his own foreign and domestic policy who lectures the city weekly on his own variant of theology, has up to last week been silent, notwithstanding that he is a friend of and occasional dining partner with Cardinal George.

So the struggle in Chicago goes on. But many things have changed. Not long ago Blaine was regarded by many Catholics as a trouble-maker. But critics are coming together. For now the feeling is that Francis George is a talented theologian, a splendid philosopher, a gifted former university professor—but not an administrator determined to bring in new people to end the abuse even if he has to knock heads together. Despite all the protestations, Jimmy Lago is still running the shop and the archdiocese is mired in evasions, half-truths and circumlocution.

Catholic authenticists, Blaine, the firebrand feminist columnist Michael Sneed of the Sun-Times and Justice Burke appear to be almost on the same page now. The consensus is building that it is up to the archdiocese to show that reform—in the nature of an independent person not beholden to the powers of the archdiocese and motivated by prompt removal of alleged offenders is truly on the way.

So far, all Chicago Catholics hear is words—neatly parsed sentences for media ops. To most, that’s not enough.

Next week: an in-depth interview with David Clohessy of St, Louis who gives details about SNAP’s work.


  1. John Thomas McGeeanMarch 21, 2006 at 3:45 PM

    Tom, I thought you were too sympathetic toward Barbara Blaine. I think she would be broken hearted if all the scandals came to an end tomorrow.

    I also do not like the WANDERER. It is a right wing Scandal Sheet. It is much like the yellow journalism one finds in the left wing rag, the National Catholic Reporter. I am not big on either rag.

  2. Fr. Peter J. DiMariaApril 10, 2006 at 4:18 PM

    Regarding John McGeean's comment on the Wanderer as a "right wing scandal sheet"... I wonder if Mr. McGeean has really read the Wanderer? I have enjoyed this wonderfully Catholic paper for close to 25 years. I have personally met the Matt family and have participated in Wanderer Forums where I have been edified by the deeply committed and charitable catholics whom I have met. The NCR, which I also regularly read, is nothing more than an organ for dissent. The Wanderer calls for fielity to the magisterium. How much better could you get?