I no longer believe the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) is in any way primarily an advocacy organization for sexual abuse victims. Instead, I think it is more a noisy little group that hates the Roman Catholic Church and has discovered a way of making a living off the victimization others have suffered. My poor opinion of SNAP was formed some time ago, but the organization returned to my attention as I’ve followed the most recent scandal unfolding in the Kansas City–St. Joseph diocese.
As regular readers know, I am a Lutheran with no axe to grind against the Roman Catholic Church, not even on the subject of priestly sex abuse involving adolescent boys. We Lutherans have our own sex scandals though they rarely make the press because they usually involve a male pastor and a female parishioner. Ho-hum, some might say. Even the rare incidents involving young boys get passed over because headlines about Lutheran pastors aren’t nearly as invitingly lurid as “pedophile priests.”
This doesn’t mean I have any sympathy for abusers or church officials who mishandle such cases. A now-deceased parishioner of mine experienced egregious sexual abuse committed by her father’s brother in a “secret room.” It began when she was small and continued on into young adolescence. Those who should have protected and loved her best abandoned her to predation.
I am certain it ruined her life. I think I was the only person she ever told about the abuse, and it took me five years to tease it all out. Despite the many times I told her she wasn’t to blame and was not at fault, she died, I believe, despairing of God’s love. What I think should happen to people violating positions of trust with children cannot be repeated in an On the Square column.
All of this has brought to mind my own past experience with SNAP. In early 2004 I was gathering information on an abuse case involving a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) for a report in Forum Letter, an independent Lutheran publication I then edited. This pastor had already been convicted in a Texas criminal trial and sentenced to three hundred and ninety-some years in prison on top of a federal conviction. The victims were suing the ELCA, the synod and bishop, and the seminary and its officials.
The judge hearing the case imposed a gag order at the request of the ELCA defendants, but with a little dodging here and a phone call there I soon had all the major portions of the sealed depositions in hand. They were pretty damning, and my possession of them earned me a subpoena—served during a church potluck by a Texas Ranger who came with ten dollars cash provided by the State of Texas for travel expenses. I pocketed the ten and ignored the subpoena.
SNAP initially was very helpful in aiding me in obtaining these materials and others. But I quickly learned they did not want my help. The background material contained numerous errors and half-truths I knew to be factually inaccurate. I thought SNAP might like to correct them and brought the errors to their attention. But SNAP had no interest in fixing the record.
The case was found in favor of the plaintiffs in a $32 million award. Deserved, no doubt. What struck me as peculiar, though, was a demand in the original claim by the plaintiffs for a $100,000 ELCA “donation” to SNAP. I tried to question the plaintiff’s attorney about the requested “donation,” with no response. I also tried to ask SNAP about the money, but they had already broken off contact with me. (I have not made any attempt to contact SNAP for this article.)
SNAP gives every appearance of having a relationship with a number of lawyers involved in this kind of litigation. When a lawsuit was announced in Kansas City last week in front of the diocesan chancery, SNAP made the announcement. While the organization has a relatively small budget, there is no question some portion of it is provided by attorney donations. There is nothing illegal about it. Still, lawyerly coziness with organizations in a position to send them referrals, I have read elsewhere, is an “ethically complicated” question.
SNAP did as of 2009 meet all the IRS requirements for a charitable organization, but it fails examination by the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance. The BBB allows board-member compensation for no more than one individual or ten percent of the board (whichever is greater). Two of eight SNAP board members receive payment for their work. Nor does SNAP provide the BBB with “effectiveness assessments” on its work or adequate information on the allocation of fund raising expenses. In the 2009 IRS filing SNAP reported $419,607 in income; $396,661 of that received in donations. Salaries, other compensation, and employee benefits were reported at $342,599.
But iffy bookkeeping is not my major problem with SNAP. Despite that one small foray into one Lutheran scandal, SNAP focuses almost exclusively on Catholic clergy, as a brief excursion through nine years of SNAP press release archives will show. The 2004 archive doesn’t even mention the lone Lutheran from Texas.
SNAP has never to my knowledge examined scandals among mental health professionals. It never says anything of public school districts, where reports say children are at far greater risk of abuse. Nor has it said anything of volunteer youth organizations. The simple fact is SNAP targets Roman Catholics. If SNAP routinely seeks “donations” from settlements, well, Catholic pockets are easier to reach, for a lot of reasons starting with media bias.
Whatever genuine aid SNAP may provide victims of priestly sex abuse is well matched by the harm SNAP does by mounting little less than an anti-Catholic smear campaign and wantonly portraying every priest as a sexual predator waiting to happen and every bishop an enabler.
Do not mistake what I am saying. Victims of clergy sexual abuse, victims of any sexual abuse by any trusted adult, do need ready and generous listeners. They also need openhanded charitable support from the institutions that employed their abusers. Victims most assuredly also need independent advocates to speak and even raise a loud clamor on their behalf.
But SNAP is not the outfit to do it.
Russell E. Saltzman is the mission development pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Gothenburg, Nebraska, and the author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays. His previous On the Square articles can be found here.
Lutheran sex abuse in Texas
Diocese of Kansas City - St. Joseph
SNAP IRS 990 2009 Filing [PDF]
Better Business Bureau Charity Review
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