Barbara Blaine: Exposing Priests’ Sexual Abuse

Screen shot 2015-03-05 at 5.38.57 PMThis March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.

In September of 2011, Barbara Blaine, the founder of the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests, traveled to The Hague to file allegations of “crimes against humanity” against the Vatican at the International Criminal Court. Her goal: to hold the Pope and the Catholic hierarchy accountable for the rampant sexual abuse by priests that had been systematically concealed for decades.

The move was unprecedented and The New York Times called it “the most substantial effort yet” to hold pedophile priests responsible for their actions.

Though the ICC decided not to prosecute or even investigate former Pope Benedict XVI and other Catholic leaders, SNAP’s filing of the complaint brought much-needed worldwide attention to the scourge of priest abuse and gave a voice to survivors who testified in the ICC filing.

Her journey to the steps of The Hague began in 1988, long before the priest abuse epidemic was well-known. That was the year Blaine, a lawyer and social worker, founded SNAP. Its mission was simple: expose predators, protect the vulnerable and empower survivors. Blaine was pushed to create the organization after years of suffering privately from the shame and trauma of her own experience with priest molestation as an 8th grader in Toledo, Ohio.

SNAP started out as a small support group with its nascent meetings taking place in the Chicago homeless shelter that Blaine ran at the time; SNAP now has more than 12,000 members and 65 chapters. It even created branches for other religious groups after abuse survivors from non-Catholic backgrounds began to approach SNAP for support.


SNAP has made several landmark achievements in its more than 25 years of existence: In 2002, the organization successfully campaigned for a California bill that would lift the statute of limitations on priest abuse. When it passed, it allowed for the filing of hundreds of lawsuits against California dioceses from survivors who would have otherwise had no recourse.

And within the past two years, SNAP, in conjunction with the Center for Constitutional Rights, has submitted detailed reports to the United Nations Committee Against Torture and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child exposing the Catholic hierarchy as an enabler in abuse that was not isolated or random but widespread. After receiving the reports, the United Nations opened an inquiry into the Vatican and the Holy See was compelled to issue a formal response, though it once again denied any culpability.

The tireless work of Blaine and SNAP has helped place the issue of priest abuse into the public dialogue and provided a safe place for survivors to tell their stories. For her efforts, Ms. magazine honored her as a “Woman of the Year” in 2002, and the Feminist Majority Foundation also honored her at its 2014 Global Women’s Rights Awards.

Only with the work of activists like Blaine will these institutions begin to realize they can’t act with impunity. As Blaine said in the Fall 2011 issue of Ms., “They only change under external pressure, they never do it just because it’s the right thing to do.”

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Alessandro Baliani via Creative Commons 2.0.

Anita Little is the associate editor at Ms. magazine. Follow her on Twitter.


    1. Marcia Holtz says:

      She is truly a Wonder Woman. Thank you Anita for honoring this very deserving hero and protector of youth.

    2. John Seryak says:

      Barbara is a courageous and committed woman whose actions have exposed criminals, advocated for victims, and saved thousands from harm.

    3. Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., M.Spir. says:

      Barbara Blaine is truly a very special and blessed superwoman. Barbara is giving a voice to all of us who are victim/survivors of clergy sexual abuse, not only in the USA, but also to victim/survivors around the world. I am a family physician. Barbara helped me write a police report to describe my own experience. I have met many who have been sexually abused/raped by priests. Many never tell anyone about it. Sadly, a good number of victims commit suicide when they give up hope of being believed, because of the secrecy and denial of the truth by the predator clergy and by the Church. It is an outrage that popes, who have never had children of their own, have created policies of secrecy and cover-up of the cases worldwide of sexual abuse of innocent children and vulnerable adults by their sexual predator fellow priests, brothers, bishops, cardinals, resulting in the priesthood being a haven for sexual predators, with no need for accountability, since world leaders let the Church be above criminal, civil, and international law. There is need to end the role of the Roman Catholic Church as a rogue state at the United Nations and end its abuse of diplomatic immunity.

    4. Helen Dawson says:

      I have listened to Barbra Blaine give testimony for SNAP in Australia, and she was an awesome speaker for survivors of child sex abuse. Please support SNAP in its terrible long battle to stop the abuse, stop the lies, stop the legal cover up of crimes against children.

    5. John Duffin says:

      This is exactly why Im a member of SNAP. Leaders like Barbra Blaine standing up to the vatican and it’s endless evil ways. The end of national sovereignty giving by the dictator- criminal Mussolini should be revoked immediately. The church is just like the mafia, making the innocents a deal that they can’t refuse.
      In the 21st century where human rights comes first, there is no room for the RCC’s existence. Humanity evolves, and so does it’s human rights. Religions are the exact opposite of human rights.
      Her example has given me the voice I never had in criticizing the evils of not thinking and just keep praying and obeying. We must stand up for the innocent victims of the past, present, and the future.

    6. Iain Pattison says:

      Barbara Blaine has invented a vital organisation in the fight against true evil, SNAP.
      It makes my ‘blood boil’ when I read what Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh says regarding the Roman Catholic System (RCS) being treated by politicians as though it’s above the law. Politicians may have let the RCS get away with extreme torture (child rape) but SNAP hasn’t. That’s thanks to courageous, intelligent, responsible & civilised people like BARBARA BLAINE.
      Also it’s not just the RCS that is focussed on by SNAP, SNAP rightly doesn’t let any religion off the hook. Keep doing God’s work Barbara.

    7. Barbara Blaine and David Clohessey have changed my life for the better by helping me understand how real prevention happens—and I’ll be forever grateful.

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