Survivor of sexual abuse inspires others to speak up

August 1, 2014

Barbara Blaine was in eighth grade when she was sexually abused by a priest at her Catholic grammar school in Ohio. She felt responsible, that she had caused a good, holy priest to sin.

Last week, Blaine sat down with her friend and mentor, retired Judge Sheila Murphy in the Chicago StoryCorps booth to talk about the trauma that led her to create a network of survivors of sexual abuse by priests.

Blaine asked church leaders to ensure that the priest who abused her would be monitored, and would not come into contact with children. To her surprise, he began working at a hospital where kids sometimes went unsupervised.

Around that same time, Blaine’s father had a stroke and wound up in the same hospital where the priest worked. When she asked the head of pastoral care to make sure the priest didn’t come by her father’s room, she discovered that he was not being monitored, and “It was like a knife going in my stomach,” she said. “I felt so betrayed. I immediately started wondering: If they lied about this, what else did they lie about? I learned much later that he had actually continued to abuse many more girls over the years. And it’s heartbreaking because I feel somewhat responsible.”

StoryCorps’ mission is to provide Americans of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to share, record and preserve their stories. This excerpt was edited by WBEZ.

In the years that followed, Blaine spoke up about the abuse she suffered, and encouraged others to do the same. As some people spoke up, others came forward. Each year, Blaine says, the victims’ group got stronger, despite denial and minimization on the part of church leaders. “We didn’t even have cellphones or the internet back then,” she said. “But we found each other, and we wrote letters and called.”

Thus began SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The group will hold its annual conference in Chicago this weekend (August 1-3, 2014) with special guest speakers, including Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke and historian Garry Wills. StoryCorps will be on hand to record survivors’ tales.

Over its twenty-five year history, SNAP leaders have proven adept at getting their story to the public. In 2011, SNAP leaders, working with the Center for Constitutional Rights, asked the International Criminal Court to charge Pope Benedict and other high-ranking Catholic clergy with Crimes Against Humanity for their alleged role in the cover-up of sexual abuse in the church. The International Criminal Court chose not to charge them at that time, Blaine says, but said they would take notice, should SNAP or CCR desire to bring additional evidence. The United Nations’ Committee Against Torture and Committee on the Rights of the Child both issued scathing reports, Blaine says, saying some church leaders care more about the reputation of predatory priests than the protection of children. On Pope Francis, Blaine said, “He’s set up a committee about sexual abuse. He’s held a meeting. He’s met with some victims. But we don’t see him doing simple things like turning over all the records he has about sex crimes. Turn over those records to police.”

“Most survivors want to remain anonymous,” Blaine said. “And they have every right to their privacy. But sometimes, keeping things private makes it a little more difficult to do fundraising or hold public meetings. And the other thing is people frequently perceive us as being anti-Catholic. And to be honest, I think someday when history looks back on our movement, people will say those survivors speaking up made the Church safer.”

Children remain at risk in many countries, she says, including the United States. But the goal of SNAP is to make sure that risk lessens with each passing year. “That’s the hope,” Blaine said, “that our efforts will protect another generation of children.”