Barbara Blaine, founder of priest-abuse victims group SNAP, dies at 61

Barbara Blaine, then-president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, displays childhood photographs of adults who say they were sexually abused, during a 2011 news conference in Philadelphia.
Barbara Blaine, then-president of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, displays childhood photographs of adults who say they were sexually abused, during a 2011 news conference in Philadelphia.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)
Chicago Tribune

Barbara Blaine — the founder of SNAP, a prominent activist group in the Roman Catholic Church’s clergy-abuse crisis — has died in Utah at 61.

The cause of her death Sunday was a condition resulting from a sudden tear in a blood vessel in her heart, her family said in a statement Monday.

“Her relentless advocacy enabled millions to eventually accept a long unbelievable reality: that tens of thousands of priests raped and fondled hundreds of thousands of kids while bishops hid these heinous crimes,” said Barbara Dorris, the managing director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, the group Blaine helped start.


“Her contributions to a safer society would be hard to overstate,” she added.

For the last 15 years, Blaine made a name for herself, standing on sidewalks outside parishes and diocesan offices, and even St. Peter’s Square, brandishing a picture of herself at age 12, when she said a priest in Ohio molested her in middle school.

In a 2012 interview, she told the Chicago Tribune that she never envisioned a combative relationship with the Catholic Church. In fact, she devoted her life to its mission to help the poor and promote peace.

As the director of the Catholic Worker House on Chicago’s South Side, she worked with then-Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s administration to house and feed the homeless. While working in the North Side’s Uptown neighborhood, she made sure the indigent received a proper burial. Alongside a Catholic priest, she was arrested for trespassing during an anti-nuclear demonstration at the suburban Argonne National Laboratory.

In 1985, however, a newspaper article about clergy abuse triggered a sudden recollection of being abused by her family’s priest in Toledo, Ohio. Church officials there questioned whether she had misinterpreted the priest’s affection. They also instructed her not to tell law enforcement.

Feeling, as she said, “raked over the coals,” Blaine rounded up other victims to figure out how to heal. For the first meeting, in 1988 at a Holiday Inn in Orland Park, Ill., she invited professional counselors and lawyers to offer expertise. She didn’t expect the group to stay together for longer than a year. It now has more than 20,000 members around the world.

“Now I understand it’s a lifelong process,” she told the Tribune. “I thought it was something you heal from like a broken leg. I never realized it would take so long.”


In 2002, shortly after the clergy abuse scandal broke in Boston, bishops invited victims including Blaine to join them at a landmark meeting in Dallas. It was the first and last time she would be asked to address the bishops.

Eventually the bishops adopted a zero-tolerance policy, including a pledge to remove priests from ministry immediately upon their being credibly accused of abuse. But the battle had already begun. By 2003, Blaine had earned her law degree and worked for the Cook County public guardian. She lobbied Illinois legislators to extend the civil statute of limitations so victims of decades-old clergy sex abuse could seek financial recourse.

But in recent years, SNAP came under fire and Blaine stepped down from the organization. Lawyers for priests accused SNAP of coaching victims to fabricate claims of repressed memories, and a lawsuit filed by a former employee claimed that SNAP exploited victims of sexual abuse by clergy in return for financial kickbacks from attorneys, an allegation Blaine disputed.

“We can forever find inspiration and purpose through the manner in which she lived,” her family said. “She was a truly remarkable human being, and her spirit will remain with us, shaping our choices for the better, erring us away from petty concerns and encouraging us to lean in toward compassion, that we might honor her memory.”

Blaine is survived by her husband, Howard, and siblings. Services are pending.

Pashman writes for the Chicago Tribune