Thanks to NCR, my crisis became a cause

Barbara Blaine, holding a photo of herself as a child, protests at the Vatican in April 2005. (ZUMA Press/La Presse/Mauro Scrobogna)
This article appears in the 30 years later feature series. View the full series.

Editor's note: This story is part of a weeklong series dedicated to looking back on 30 years of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church. Read all parts of the series.

A single issue of NCR changed the course of my life and eventually led to my starting an international movement of survivors of clergy abuse. I am extremely grateful to NCR!

In the summer of 1985, I was a Catholic Worker at a house of hospitality in Chicago filled with about 30 mentally ill men and women. Many more crossed the threshold of the dining room at mealtimes. There were not many quiet moments, but when a quiet afternoon did present itself, I used it to read through a stack of old newspapers and magazines, and I came across the June 7, 1985, issue of NCR.

I was shocked to see an article by Jason Berry about a priest sexually abusing altar boys. As I read, my breathing became heavy. Before reaching the end of the article, I became sick and ran to the bathroom. I learned later that experience is called an anxiety attack.

The article also triggered nightmares, flashbacks, moments of terror, and uncontrollable tears and anger. I was confused and my normal routine disrupted. It was a personal crisis I felt ill-equipped to handle.

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It stemmed from what a priest in my childhood parish did to me beginning the summer after seventh grade. I had not viewed it as abuse or thought of myself as a victim. He convinced me that I caused it. The abuse continued through high school. Those years were filled with confusion, guilt and shame. I tried hard to be good, but nothing seemed to work. He led me to believe that I kept causing him to do sex acts on me.

After going to confession on a senior retreat, I felt empowered enough to stay away from Fr. Chet Warren and the abuse ended. It still saddens me that the priest in the confessional told me, "Jesus could forgive anything," instead of, "You did nothing wrong. We have to call the police and your parents."

After high school, I spent a couple years working with the Sisters of Mercy in Kingston, Jamaica. I threw myself into the life of the religious community, teaching high school, organizing retreats, helping at a children's home, and working with the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

I returned to the United States and studied theology and social work for my bachelor's at St. Louis University and then at Washington University for a master's degree. After briefly working in the national Pax Christi office in Chicago, I joined the Catholic Worker and felt that I had found my niche in life.

But reading NCR that day disrupted it. On the outside, I kept doing my work, but on the inside, I experienced such a deep hurt that nothing seemed to stop it.

With all the courage I could muster, I confronted my perpetrator, told my parents, and reported the abuse to the Toledo, Ohio, diocese and the Oblates of St Francis de Sales. I asked that my perpetrator be kept away from children; that the diocese pay for my counseling; and that church officials acknowledge I had been abused.

I was naive and trusted church officials. I believed them when they said I was the only one reporting crimes by Warren. I trusted they knew best when they told me not to report anything to the police.

While claiming they would, church officials refused to help me. I still needed healing, so I began to look for and find other survivors. They believed me and understood my experiences, because they had lived through similar, if not identical, situations.

We began to research and learn how to heal from childhood sexual violence. That is how the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, began. The SNAP community did what the church community refused to do.

Other survivors in SNAP helped me realize that my personal healing was tied to working to protect other children. While we could not undo what happened to us, we could find consolation and healing by preventing more sexual violence. It led us to speak up and expose our perpetrators. In SNAP, I am constantly inspired by the courage and generosity of other survivors.

Slowly, I found my voice and the overriding emotional pain lessened.

When I finally mustered the courage, in 1991, to not only reveal the biggest secret of my life, but also to defy the provincial and bishop, I reported Warren to the police. It was painful and embarrassing. The two detectives were compassionate and said they found me credible. But later they said I had waited too long to tell, so they could not prosecute.

Years of personal turmoil followed, as various church officials promised help, only to renege, over and over again.

They knew all along. They could have stopped it, but refused. They enabled my perpetrator to rape me and other girls, too. I am now aware of 21 others violated by Warren.

In 1992, I was invited to "The Oprah Winfrey Show." I alerted the bishop and Warren's provincial that I was going to be on "Oprah" and I was going "to tell."

Days later, when I arrived at the studio, a producer told me Warren had been removed from ministry. It was seven years since I had reported him and 23 years after other girls had told. He was finally removed, and now others would be safe, but that is not what motivated the bishop and provincial. They had acted to protect their reputations.

The broken promises and callous disregard by church officials made my healing journey so difficult. For years, I questioned what was worse: enduring the sexual violence, or the deceit and cover-up?

I could understand how one bad priest might slip through the cracks, but I did not understand why church officials had to lie to me and my parents, why they did not just remove him from ministry, and why they had to tell me and everyone else that I was not credible. Healing from that reality was as hard as healing from the sexual violence.

Eventually, I was forced to confront that surrounding myself with folks in crises, as those at the Catholic Worker, enabled me to ignore my own need for healing. While grateful for 10 years of community, I determined I had to leave to heal myself.

I embarked on a new career, studied at DePaul University, became an attorney representing abused and neglected children, learned to care for the wounded child still living in my soul, married Howard Rubin and found levels of happiness that I never knew existed.

During these 30 years, I have been forced to confront the lies told by church officials as well as my own naiveté in failing to recognize the cover-up and the enabling of my perpetrator. I wanted to believe church officials were men of integrity who lived the Gospel message they preached.

They proved me wrong.

I wish I could say that all is well now and that children are safe in the church, but I know it is not entirely true. Tragically, the sexual violence continues, even now, in 2015. The highest-ranking church officials -- at the diocesan, national and Vatican levels -- have known about and covered up many crimes. We must remain skeptical that the recent Vatican actions are more than public relations campaigns.

I am not unwilling to acknowledge when church officials get it right.

In the 1990s, I served on a committee that drafted a new policy for the Chicago archdiocese. After numerous meetings, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin announced the new policy. Yet, within the year, I recognized that church officials were not following it. When I inquired and pointed out the discrepancies, they said the policy did not apply to those particular situations. Other SNAP leaders have shared similar experiences in other dioceses.

In the years since then, Chicago is one of the few dioceses that have worked hard to improve policies and procedures, but that improvement didn't prevent Fr. Daniel McCormack from abusing boys from 2001 to 2005, despite warnings to the archdiocese.

In 2002, when the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis was head of the bishop's committee on sexual abuse and seemed to understand our plight. We found consolation in thinking at least one bishop in leadership was on our side. But in 2014, evidence came to light that Flynn was hiding truths and perpetrators all along. If even the ones who seem to "get it" act like this, we must remain skeptical.

In 2005, a Philadelphia grand jury exposed how victims' trust in ministers assigned to assist them is betrayed by attorneys defending perpetrators.

Several dioceses and religious communities have betrayed victims by inviting them to come forward in bankruptcy proceedings, only to later claim they have no duty to provide for them because they did not come forward sooner.

Yes, Pope Francis has set up a process to hold bishops accountable for covering up sex crimes. But over these three decades, there have been dozens of church panels, new policies and promises. Until bishops get punished, let's withhold judgment.

Yes, Bishop Robert Finn resigned as head of the Kansas City-St Joseph, Mo., diocese in April, but that came two and half years after his conviction for endangering children. No reason was given for the resignation. How is this progress?

Yes, Archbishop John Nienstedt and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché of St. Paul-Minneapolis resigned 10 days after the archdiocese was charged with mishandling allegations of clergy sex abuse. Why weren't they removed, rather than permitted to step down? More importantly, are children safe now in that archdiocese?

Yes, Vatican officials announced they will hold a trial for Archbishop Jozef Wesolowski, the former papal ambassador to the Dominican Republic who was indicted for abusing boys there. But is this one more internal process through which church officials can cover up? Why not send him back to face charges in the Dominican Republic?

Yes, much good has happened in the past 30 years. Who would have thought back in 1985 that sex abuse by priests would be common knowledge? NCR and Jason Berry were criticized for their reporting. Now, everyone knows there are countless individuals who suffered similar crimes by similar perpetrators all over the globe, including more than 100,000 in the U.S. alone.

Not from church leaders, but a significant support from within the church comes from thousands of Catholics who care about victims, as evidenced by responses from groups like Call to Action, the Voice of the Faithful, and the National Survivor Advocates Coalition.

SNAP now has more than 20,000 members from 73 countries. Survivors have the ability to find each other, as well as information and hope. It is unquestionable that sexual violence is committed by priests across the globe. It will continue to be exposed.

It was good that I saw that NCR article. 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.

[Barbara Blaine is founder and president of SNAP.]

This story appeared in the July 3-16, 2015 print issue under the headline: Thanks to NCR, my crisis became a cause .

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