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.”

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


Associate editor of Ms. magazine