On September 24, the world became a little poorer. Barbara Blaine, who to me embodied the Catholic social justice gospel, died from a heart ailment. Blaine was 61. Earlier this year, she had retired from the organization she had founded, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). This is how I remember her.
It was a cold, drizzly April day in Chicago in 2015. I had just finished my second interview with Barbara Blaine, one of the women I profile in my book, Catholic Women Confront Their Church: Stories of Hurt and Hope. I was hurrying to make my flight back to Washington, D.C., planning to hail a cab to O’Hare Airport. But Blaine insisted that the subway was faster and cheaper. The fare is $5, but you need exact change, Blaine told me. I only had 20s in my wallet. Blaine counted out five $1 bills from her purse and handed them to me, insisting I take them.
Blaine was not a tycoon. For many years, her work with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) earned her no compensation. Even after more than two decades, with a membership of more than 20,000 and members throughout the world, the organization’s office was in a building with a lot of character but quirky plumbing and unreliable elevators.
That spontaneous generosity was at the heart of who she was. Her commitment to the social justice message of the gospels, and her prophetic voice, exemplified what Catholicism should be all about.
If Saint Paul was right when he wrote that “the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’” I can think of few women who better lived up to Catholicism’s highest demands.
All her life, Blaine served other people in direct and uncompromising ways. Just out of high school, she worked in Jamaica, helping an order of women religious minister to the poor in Kingston. After two years as a volunteer, she returned to the states, earning undergraduate and graduate degrees in social work.
She then returned to Jamaica for one more year of service, but ultimately was drawn to the Catholic Worker movement. She ran a Catholic Worker house in Chicago for 10 years. But even as she was serving the poor and vulnerable, she was carrying a terrible secret and a burden of guilt. Rev. Chet Warren, the assistant pastor at her family’s parish in Toledo, Ohio, a man she had trusted and looked up to, had sexually abused her for four years, beginning when she was 13.
For years, she did not consider that terrible experience to have been abuse. She thought she had been responsible for what happened. It wasn’t until 1985, when she read Jason Berry’s accounts of sexual abuse by priests in the National Catholic Reporter, that she began to realize that she had been the victim of abuse, that she was not an evil, seductive temptress.
At that point, Blaine could have opted to focus entirely on herself, trying to heal the trauma of abuse, opting for an existence centered on her own needs. She could have closed the door on the Catholic Church. She did neither. She spent a lifetime trying to help and support victims of clerical abuse. And she worked ceaselessly to push and prod the institutional church to do more to recognize abuse, address it, and protect the children in its care.
Blaine made one concession to her well-being. She left the Catholic Worker house, realizing that addressing the urgent needs of the people she served “was almost blocking me from dealing with my own issues.”
She enrolled in law school, but with social justice still in mind. As a newly minted lawyer, she worked for the Cook County Public Guardian, representing abused and neglected children.
In 1989, when Blaine founded SNAP, it also was in keeping with her social justice mission – offering help to those in pain. But as the group’s founder, she also took on another role – prophet.
Blaine likely would have scoffed at the title. But in her more than 25 years at SNAP, she was tireless in her efforts to confront a church hierarchy that too often wanted to hide child abuse rather than prevent it.
Prophets speak truth to power, and power often does not want to listen. As Catholic scholar Stephen Colecchi points out, the Old Testament prophets called attention to the ways Israel and its religious leaders fell short of their ideals. The prophet Isaiah inveighed against rulers “who enact unjust statutes … making widows their plunder and orphans their prey.”
Over the years, Blaine repeatedly approached Catholic priests and bishops, warning of the problem of sexual abuse in the church, and asking them to institute common-sense reforms to ensure that children would be protected from predators.
In the late 1980s, Blaine told her story of abuse to the Toledo diocese. The bishop at the time promised her that Warren would be closely monitored. But a few years later, she learned that the church had not warned others about Warren, who then was serving as a hospital chaplain, or protected hospitalized children from him. “It was like a knife going through my stomach,” Blaine said in a 2014 radio interview. “I felt so betrayed.”
And repeated efforts by Blaine and SNAP to work with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on reforms have met with repeated disappointments. One of the most heart-breaking for Blaine concerned Archbishop Harry Flynn, head of the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese. In 2002, Flynn drafted a USCCB policy on handling sexual abuse. Flynn endorsed “zero tolerance” for sexual predators, and Blaine trusted him.
But in 2014, Minnesota Public Radio broadcast a scathing exposé of three Minnesota archbishops, including Flynn. Each archbishop had conspired to deceive abuse victims and cover up priestly misconduct.] Flynn “had been lying to us,” she told me.
Only one bishop has not disappointed her, Detroit Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, now retired. Gumbleton endorsed changing an Ohio law to extend the statute of limitations concerning sexual abuse allegations against members of the clergy. Gumbleton, himself the victim of abuse as a young seminarian, was swiftly punished by the Vatican for publicly disagreeing with Ohio bishops, who opposed the changes.
Despite all the heartbreak and frustration, Blaine, like all good prophets, persevered. SNAP even has urged the United Nations to hold the Vatican accountable for crimes of abuse against children. This public scrutiny, she said, is crucial. “If we don’t acknowledge the evil,” she said, “we cannot begin to rid the church of evil.” And she took comfort in knowing that, because of SNAP, thousands of abuse victims no longer felt alone and unsupported.
In 2015, Blaine speculated how Jason Berry’s reporting on the abuse scandal thirty years ago had changed her life. She wrote that it has been the support of Catholic laity that has made the difference. “My crisis, our crises, became a cause. Our cause became a movement. And our movement has made a safer church, though not yet safe enough.”