SNAP's new year starts with departure, lawsuit

Gretchen Hammond, right, with her attorney Bruce Howard (Chicago Sun-Times/Rich Hein)
Gretchen Hammond, right, with her attorney Bruce Howard (Chicago Sun-Times/Rich Hein)

by Brian Roewe

NCR environment correspondent

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It is a moment of tumult and transition for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.

In mid-January, the advocacy and support group for survivors of sexual abuse by clergy learned of a lawsuit filed by a former employee alleging the group had abandoned its core mission of supporting survivors and had engaged in a "kickback" scheme with attorneys who sued the Catholic church on behalf of survivors.

But the new year initially began for SNAP without one of its most outspoken and ardent voices, David Clohessy, who left the organization after more than two decades, as first reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

In a statement to SNAP supporters dated Jan. 24, board chairwoman Mary Ellen Kruger said Clohessy "has voluntarily resigned from SNAP effective December 31, 2016."

In a phone interview, Clohessy, 60, told NCR he informed the board of his decision in October — months before the lawsuit was filed Jan. 17 — citing some minor health issues and a desire for a change.

"What led to the decision? Fatigue. Wanting to do something different and perhaps less stressful," he said.

"I'll certainly always be a member of SNAP," Clohessy said.

SNAP president Barbara Blaine said that the board is looking at options for the organization's structuring moving forward — its headquarters in October also relocated from Chicago to St. Louis — but that so far no decisions have been made, including whether or how it will seek to fill the national director position Clohessy had held since 1991.

"No one could replace David ... [He has] been an integral part of the leadership of SNAP for a couple decades. And his leaving is really sad. It creates a hole," Blaine told NCR. "There are many people who are saddened by it as much as people wish him the best and think he certainly has gone above and beyond in service to the survivor community."

'She's making allegations that are not true'

The opening tone of 2017 for SNAP stands in contrast to that of 2016, when the organization stood in the glow from the Hollywood film "Spotlight" — which retold the Boston Globe's investigation into clergy sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese in the early 2000s and won the Academy Award for best picture. SNAP's persistent, at times aggressive, approach in raising awareness of the abuse crisis, with the church, with the press and with the public, was embodied in Neal Huff's portrayal of SNAP member Phil Saviano.

But if 2016 opened with accolades, 2017 has entered with an assault.

While "Spotlight" positively highlighted SNAP's historical role throughout the clergy sexual abuse scandals, it also triggered memories for Gretchen Hammond of what she described as a turbulent 17 months in 2011-13 with the organization as its development director. "It just brought it all flooding back," she told a group of reporters Jan. 19 on a conference call.

In Hammond's possession were not only memories of what she described as a tense and hostile workplace at SNAP's main Chicago office, but also files she had taken with her, including emails from Clohessy's account and others on an external hard drive, that she says show evidence that SNAP provided survivors' contact information to attorneys in exchange for donations. Dusting off the docket she stashed in a storage locker, "I started shopping it around," Hammond told journalists, now a reporter herself for the Windy City Times, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender publication. She first considered taking her story to the press before ultimately taking it to two attorneys, Bruce Howard and Richard Wilson.

The lawsuit is not the first to target SNAP. In June 2015, a Chinese-born priest in the St. Louis archdiocese sued the group on conspiracy and defamation charges related to criminal abuse charges against him that were later dropped. And while SNAP was not a named party in either, two lawsuits in 2011 subpoenaed the group to turn over 23 years of internal documents and emails.

In her suit, which requests a jury trial, Hammond seeks compensatory damages for what it describes as her retaliatory discharge. She also wants to see a change in culture at her former employer.

"I want SNAP to clean up its act. I really do. ... To go back to what it was supposed to be doing," she said.

Blaine told NCR she could not answer questions about the lawsuit.

"The only thing I can say is that she's making allegations that are not true. That's all I can say. We're going to fight it," she said.

Outreach director Barbara Dorris reiterated in a note to SNAP supporters Friday that the kickback scheme allegations "are NOT true," and asked for financial help in covering legal fees associated with the case. She added they are "seeking pro-bono legal help."

"It is ironic that if the allegations were true we would not be writing this note to ask for your help," Dorris wrote. She said that like all nonprofit organizations, SNAP relies heavily on donations, and that it accepts them from attorneys, police officers, its members and others within the church.

Dominican Fr. Tom Doyle, a longtime advocate for clergy sex abuse survivors, said he's known for years the principal attorneys involved in the clergy sex abuse cases, and that "there has never been any agreement [between SNAP and attorneys] to exchange clients for donations." Though SNAP receives regular requests for lawyer recommendations — as does Doyle — he said any recommendations are made based on geography and not kickbacks, the latter of which could cost an attorney their practicing license.

'Very nice-smelling donations'

Hammond, who worked for SNAP from July 2011 to February 2013, said the beginning of her tenure was "wonderful ... excited about the coming challenge." At the time, SNAP was preparing for its case before the International Criminal Court at The Hague in the Netherlands, where they brought charges of crimes against humanity against the Vatican. She raised funds around that while also organizing its database of roughly 7,000 donors.

More: International Criminal Court declines to pursue 'crimes against humanity' case against Vatican (June 18, 2013)

Within months, though, the excitement turned to tension and suspicion, Hammond said. First, she was excluded from the 2011 internal audit process, required by SNAP's nonprofit status, and something, according the lawsuit, in which Hammond believed she should have participated. Then, according to the court filing, she became more attuned to the relationship between SNAP and victim's attorneys, and began asking questions about its outreach to survivors. Hammond said she was instructed not to disclose that SNAP received donations from attorneys and to avoid using the word "attorney" in the newsletters sent to donors. Instead, she used a moniker, "Rose's List," to refer to attorneys' monetary gifts, "because usually they were very nice-smelling donations, because they were so big."

Hammond's lawsuit lists donation figures from 2011 of $676,923, with more than 56 percent from plaintiff's attorneys. Other figures from years before her hiring — 2003, 2007, 2008 — similarly show majority proportions of donations coming from attorneys.

"It was never a spoken expectation, but there would be this expectation that they would get a donation sent back," she said on the press call. She added that most attorneys' donations came from their personal checking accounts and none were recurring, and that she did not think survivors were ever expected to make a contribution from their settlements.

While working at SNAP, Hammond said, she became aware of accusations that the group would receive donations from attorneys in exchange for referrals of survivors. She read daily web posts from the Catholic League and the Media Report, two of SNAP's most vocal critics, to keep abreast to the criticisms they tossed. Her own concerns were stoked when she sought details about survivor support meetings that she wanted to include in newsletters and grant proposals.

Hammond said on the press call her request to attend a Chicago meeting of survivors was denied, as well as a request for additional information about what happened during such sessions. Other concerns were alleged instructions from Dorris not to answer calls from survivors, and the usage of a large donation on a full-page ad in The New York Times rather than spent on services for survivors.

In November 2012, Hammond said in the lawsuit, she was accidentally copied on an email from Clohessy to "a prominent attorney" in which Clohessy provided the attorney information about a survivor regarding the filing of a lawsuit, and then also asked when SNAP could expect a donation.

"And my heart just sank, because everything that I suspected suddenly turned out to be true," she said.

Hammond said she quickly confronted Blaine about the email and asked if SNAP was referring potential clients to attorneys for donations. According to the lawsuit, Blaine responded, "This is nothing."

From that point forward, Hammond said, the working atmosphere turned hostile toward her, and Blaine had her copy her on all future work, and to adjust her hours so she was in the office when Blaine was. She also began having health issues, including liver problems, blood pressure issues and weight gain, that eventually placed her on bed rest by February 2013.

In the time between, Hammond, according to the lawsuit, "gathered and downloaded incriminating documents from SNAP," and "began thinking about how she could expose SNAP's scheme." That included taking emails from Clohessy's account, to which she said he gave her access previously in order to retrieve phone numbers or other contact information for him.

"I had his password, so I started going into his email and I pulled out emails dating back to at least 2010, 2011 — a pile of them — and I would take 10 or 15 emails out a day to my car and take them home," Hammond said.

Clohessy told NCR while he can see himself giving his email password to either Blaine or Dorris, "I certainly can't recall and certainly can't imagine that I would give a junior staff access to my email."

"If [Hammond] was taking emails that she had no permission to take, that's a bit disturbing, certainly," he said.

Other files she stored on an external hard drive, which a SNAP volunteer demanded from her one day in February while she was still on bed rest. Hammond said she instructed her then-wife to delay the volunteer until she was able to copy the files onto a duplicate drive.

Two days later, Hammond received a call from Blaine, who reportedly said, "It's not working out," effectively firing her. Hammond soon after filed for unemployment.

Dispute over priorities

During the conference call with journalists, Hammond explained that she could understand why victim's attorneys would make a donation to SNAP, recognizing their advocacy as valuable, and why SNAP would support lawsuits against the church as a means of holding it accountable. Her primary issue was what she viewed as fundraising becoming the driving organizational force, rather than their work to help survivors.

"I think they started out with the best of intentions, I honestly believe that. They started out doing exactly what they said they were going to do way back in the day," Hammond said.

"I never felt once like the advocacy side of things was ever a priority," she said, who noted in the lawsuit that SNAP did not employ a grief or rape counselor.

"Who is saying that SNAP is no longer engaged in supporting survivors?" asked Gail Howard, a SNAP chapter leader in Bridgeport, Conn., involved with the organization since 2004. "That's crazy. I guess you can quote me on that."

Beginning with the chapter's founding two years prior to her joining, Howard said, the SNAP chapter has held monthly meetings, most recently at a local library. The meetings, which she leads, lately has had three to five people attend either in person or by phone. Others she speaks with one-on-one. In the chapter's earlier days, more attended, and she maintains a list of approximately 60 people that she notifies about future meetings or events.

"We are not trying to be each other's therapists," said Howard. "SNAP, as you know, is a self-help group, and we try to be very alert to not giving each other advice, but instead simply talking about what kind of steps we've been taking toward our own healing. And if that's helpful to someone else on the call, that's great."

Clohessy labeled as "ludicrous" the charge that SNAP has abandoned its survivor outreach work.

He told NCR that SNAP blocks many people from the meetings, including the auditor, administrative personnel and, except on the rarest of occasions, journalists. "Support group meetings are for survivors and their loved ones. Period," he said.

"The overwhelming majority of our time and our energy is spent supporting individual survivors. Over the phone, in person, at a coffee shop, at our meetings, in Skype calls, I can go on and on," he said.

Hammond said that she had virtually no contact with regional leaders nor was she given information about their activities.

Details regarding more than three dozen meeting times in 22 states are accessible through SNAP's website, along with contact information for each chapter's leaders. Dorris, who oversees the outreach programs, is often listed as a primary or secondary contact. In the Harrisburg, Va., region, meetings are the first Thursday of the month. Around Dallas, it's the third Saturday. In Toledo, Ohio, it's the first Sunday.

Around a dozen people have been gathering each month since May in Tucson, Ariz., said Vickie Jahaske, who joined SNAP at the same time. She said she received training and resources on how to lead a meeting at SNAP's annual conference.

To the west in Southern California, while regular support group meetings have not taken place since 2009, a virtual outreach network has filled the void, said Joelle Casteix, SNAP's western regional director.

With survivors spread out across the area's sparse geography, Casteix said it's "virtually impossible" to find a central meeting locale. Instead, she spends three to four hours a week talking with survivors by phone, as well as through email conversations. A SNAP member since 2002, she has developed a database of local therapists who work with adult sex abuse survivors that she shares broadly. She said that she and other chapter leaders, all volunteers, rely greatly on Dorris for support when working with survivors becomes overwhelming, and that SNAP has brought in speakers to talk about dealing with "vicarious trauma."

Casteix said the lawsuit against SNAP is "very, very heartbreaking," and that if there was a kickback scheme "it's the worst kickback scheme ever because I don't get paid. None of us get paid. ... I give them money."

"We've always stood behind our mission to help survivors. I mean, I pick up my phone and answer my emails almost 24 hours a day, for free, because I want to help people. Nobody pays me to help survivors and get them help," she said.

[Brian Roewe is an NCR staff writer. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @BrianRoewe.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 10-23, 2017 print issue.

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