Lawsuit: ‘Spotlight’ Heroes Made Money Off Priests’ Victims
A group called SNAP helped expose sexual abuse in the Catholic Church—but now a former employee is claiming they got kickbacks by referring victims to lawyers.
For over 20 years, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has operated with a mission to expose clergy sexual abuse and its coverup—work that was highlighted by last year’s Oscar-award winning film Spotlight. But a new lawsuit alleges that the St. Louis-based charity actually exploits abuse survivors in a kickback scheme involving attorneys who file lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
In the lawsuit against SNAP, a former employee named Gretchen Rachel Hammond charges she was wrongfully fired as SNAP’s development director in 2013 after she confronted SNAP president Barbara Blaine with evidence the group had been “routinely accepting financial kickbacks from attorneys in the form of donations.”
Blaine, executive director David Clohessy, and outreach director Barbara Dorris are all named in the suit. Clohessy resigned a week after the lawsuit was filed, but has denied his departure has anything to do with the allegations. On Saturday Blaine announced she, too, was leaving her position with SNAP after 29 years. Like Clohessy, Blaine stressed that the timing was only coincidental, and explained in a statement to supporters that her decision to leave was a result of the organization “moving from a founder led organization to one that is board led.”
“Please know that the recent lawsuit filed against SNAP, as the others in the past which have no merit, had absolutely no bearing on my leaving,” Blaine wrote.
According to that lawsuit, in exchange for the alleged kickbacks—which contributed up to 80 percent of SNAP’s entire contributions in a given year, Hammond claims—when survivors reached out for help, Clohessy and Blaine would send them to specific attorneys. When the cases would settle, as they often did, both the attorneys and SNAP would share in “direct payments from survivors settlements,” according to the complaint.
SNAP has flatly denied the allegations. There is no "kickback scheme,” Blaine told The Daily Beast.
In an email soliciting funds to fight the lawsuit in court, Barbara Dorris, SNAP’s outreach director and a co-defendant in the case, wrote, “These allegations are NOT true. We have never and will never do that. We accept donations from cops, attorneys, our members, church employees and church members. We are a not for profit. Like all nonprofit organizations, we must raise funds to survive.”
In the last five reported years, SNAP has brought in roughly $5 million in total revenue, according to the organization’s tax returns. Hammond’s attorney told The Daily Beast the payments to SNAP came from around 30 attorneys in at least five different states.
In 2007, Hammond claims one California attorney donated $100,000 to SNAP. The group brought in $437,407 in total revenue that year.
In 2008, the complaint goes on to allege, when the non-profit raised $753,596 in total, one Minnesota attorney donated over $415,000. The same attorney donated another $275,000 in 2011.
The Catholic Church meanwhile has paid out $3 billion to survivors over the last decade in the form of settlements, therapy and attorneys fees, according to an annual report from The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Attorneys’ fees constituted one-fifth of this year’s church payments.
During her tenure, Hammond claims, money poured in from these attorneys without rhyme or reason. Since Blaine allegedly warned her not to speak of them, Hammond said she kept a list of the the secret contributors with the code name, “Rose’s list,” the details from which make up most of the current lawsuit. In November 2012, Hammond claims she finally confronted Blaine after being mistakenly Cc'd on an email in which SNAP’s former national director David Clohessy referred a survivor to an attorney, then allegedly asked the attorney when SNAP could expect a donation.
“That’s the initial smoking gun,” Hammond’s lawyer Bruce Howard told The Daily Beast. “That established a quid pro quo.”
While it is unethical for a lawyer to pay a fee or give something of value in exchange or as a reward for a referral for legal services, it is neither illegal nor unethical for an attorney to make a donations to a non-profit, and it’s not yet clear in this case which occurred, legal experts told The Daily Beast.
If a court finds that the lawyers did violate the ethics rule, the attorney in question could face sanctions from his state’s high court, said Jim Grogan, deputy administrator and chief counsel of the Illinois Supreme Court’s Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission. “Anywhere from a reprimand all the way to disbarment and anything in between,” said Grogan, who could not speak on this specific case.
Beyond the allegations of financial impropriety, Hammond’s complaint alleges that for all their talk of support and counseling, in her two years in senior management, she never saw any instance of the victim support or advocacy work SNAP prided itself on. She claims when she asked for details about SNAP’s work in these areas, she was denied access to a single support group or group therapy session. “It was almost like they didn't do that side of it. It was like they were making it up as they went along,” Hammond said in an interview. In a statement provided to The Daily Beast, SNAP denied ever claiming to be a counseling organization and defended their support groups. “We are a volunteer-based, peer support network of survivors who help each other in support group meetings, over the phone, through the internet, in person, and through public events,” it read. SNAP acknowledged barring Hammond from the groups, but said it was done to protect the privacy rights of victims.
When she wasn’t allowed to participate in an organization-wide audit, Hammond’s says she started to worry. She says the concern grew when she saw more money allegedly being spent on luxury trips for SNAP executives than outreach or counseling. Blaine strenuously denied the existence of such trips in an email to The Daily Beast.
But in this way, the lawsuit’s biggest threat to SNAP could be the tarnishing of its good name.
SNAP has been working to expose clergy sexual abuse since the early 90s and struggled for years to garner support—financial and philosophical—according to interviews with former leader David Clohessy. But a 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation changed all that. After Globe reporters uncovered a vast sexual abuse scandal and coverup in Boston area Catholic churches, SNAP phones began ringing off the hook, according to a piece in The Morning Call.
Then 2015’s Oscar-winning film, Spotlight, dramatized the investigation, including characters from SNAP. Speaking to a reporter about the evolution in 2016, Clohessy quoted Gandhi: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win," he said.
But with Hammond’s lawsuit, the fight may be renewed.
For years, Catholic publications and bloggers have blasted SNAP as publicity-obsessed fanatics, driven by a grudge against the Catholic church. This opposition has pointed to Hammond’s case as proof of that conclusion.
One long-time critic named Dave Pierre, who writes at The Media Report, said the lawsuit “confirms what many of us have known all along: SNAP is not an organization designed to help victims of clergy sex abuse but a gang hell bent on shaking down the Catholic Church through a seedy web of lawyer kickback schemes, lawsuits, and bigotry.”
For SNAP’s local leaders, the allegations have been heartbreaking.
“We know there are people who don’t want us to exist. I’m not sure why,” said Melanie Sekoda, 63, who leads two support groups in California where she meets with a handful regulars once a month.
“It’s never been any secret that some of the attorneys make donations to SNAP,” she said, but in her experience, most of the SNAP survivors never file lawsuits against their abuser because of the statute of limitations has run out.
“I think in some ways the attorneys support SNAP because we help the people that they can’t help.”
Sekoda noted that she and most of the people at SNAP were unpaid volunteers, and would speak out if there was something amiss. “It’s just not how I’ve seen SNAP work,” she said.
Becky Ianni, another unpaid volunteer who leads two survivors’ groups in Virginia, said without SNAP, victims like herself would be again be disbelieved, guilted, and ultimately on their own.
Ianni received a settlement from the Catholic church after her abuser committed suicide in 1992. The lawyer who negotiated the payment was not referred by SNAP, Ianni said.
“I do it because someone saved my life,” Ianni said. “We don’t want another abused child to suffer in silence and get to get to be 40 or 50 years old … We want to let people know they’re not alone.”