updated 12/18/2004 5:38:49 PM ET 2004-12-18T22:38:49

The leafletting outside St. Matthew Catholic Church started well on a recent Sunday, with some parishioners accepting the brochures about clergy abuse being handed out by people who said they were abused by priests.

Then one woman standing on a church balcony screamed at the demonstrators “You’re evil!” and a man made an obscene gesture at them. The parish called police, who told the protesters they couldn’t leaflet without a city permit.

The angry reaction came as no surprise to members of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. Since the sexual abuse scandal in the U.S. Roman Catholic church blew up in 2002, SNAP has often stepped forward to speak for victims.

Victims split over SNAP
While many victims have embraced SNAP as a support group and a means to win long-overdue justice, the group’s tactics have alienated other Catholics and even some of the very people it hopes to help.

Some abuse victims say the group is too angry and confrontational, while others insist it’s not activist enough. Still others fault SNAP for its close relationship with clergy abuse attorneys, saying the link fuels perceptions that victims are only after the church’s money.

The attitudes reflect deep divisions among victims over how to proceed now that the first wave of the scandal has subsided. The question has profound significance for victims, many of whom will never see their molesters prosecuted because of statutes of limitations.

“This issue drives to the core of who you are — it’s not like anything else in the world,” said Mary Ryan, an alleged abuse victim from Rhode Island. “It’s messy.”

Support group growing
SNAP was started by Chicago social worker and abuse victim Barbara Blaine in 1989 and had 1,800 members, six active chapters and an annual budget of $2,000 until early 2002, when the clergy sex abuse scandal exploded in Boston and spread across the nation. The group now has 5,000 members, 60 active chapters and an annual budget of $250,000, with five paid staff members.

The growth gave SNAP clout in the national discourse on clergy abuse.

Among other actions, SNAP has demonstrated each of the last three years outside a hotel in Washington, D.C., when bishops held their annual meetings there. Members routinely picket diocesan headquarters and leaflet churches to spread the word about abuse.

Mary Grant, who coordinates SNAP actions across Southern California, said the group’s activism has helped identify and remove molester priests. For example, she said, alleged victims of two Los Angeles priests who now face criminal investigations came forward after hearing about SNAP in the news.

“Some don’t want to be public and that’s fine,” Grant said. “But we’ve literally found thousands of victims by standing outside parishes.”

Approaches to activism differ
SNAP members said they want accountability and healing and believe their approach is the best way to achieve that. Their strategy is different from other support groups such as The Linkup, which has reached out to bishops and religious orders on addressing abuse.

Ninety percent of SNAP’s work goes on behind closed doors, its leaders say.

Through group sessions coordinated by SNAP, 45-year-old Esther Miller met another alleged victim of the same priest after thinking for years that she was his only target.

Learning she wasn’t alone made her realize “I wasn’t really crazy and I wasn’t making this up,” said Miller, a contract administrator from Seal Beach.

The group’s public tactics, however, have irked some victims and led the Rev. Joseph Alzugaray, a pastor in Napa, to file a libel lawsuit.

Ties to lawyers criticized
SNAP had circulated pamphlets alluding to the fact that Alzugaray was under investigation for alleged molestation. He denied the allegations and no criminal charges have been filed.

In his lawsuit, Alzugaray said SNAP funnels potential plaintiffs to a handful of lawyers who donate tens of thousands of dollars to the organization. A judge threw out the suit, but it fueled quiet criticism of the group.

“I would say there’s inappropriate use of all the victims,” said Chris Logue, a Boston clergy abuse victim who left SNAP to join Male Survivors. “These lawyers are only out for themselves. ... They never do nothing unless you have a case they can make money off.”

David Clohessy, SNAP’s national director, acknowledged that several of the highest-profile plaintiffs’ attorneys in the nation have ponied up “probably the largest non-survivor donations we’ve gotten” — between $10,000 and $20,000 each annually.

But Clohessy said SNAP does not direct clients to lawyers who donate. He said many members wind up with the same attorneys simply by word of mouth.

Other critics said they are more bothered by what they called SNAP’s anti-Catholic stance.

Paul Schwartz, of Wichita, Kan., attended the group’s meetings but decided he wasn’t being helped. “Every conversation I’ve ever had with SNAP is ’Oh, we’re going to bring (the church) down. How’s that going to help me?” Schwartz said. “The Catholic church did not cause my anger and rage, the abuse did.”

Others said fueling that anger is the only way to prevent future clergy abuse. They have formed other groups, such as Speak Truth to Power, and say SNAP isn’t activist enough.

“I understood that SNAP members were trying to reach the mainstream type of thinking and not alienate Catholics. But I didn’t care about alienating. I want the truth out,” said Susan Renehan, 56, an alleged abuse victim from Worcester, Mass., and a board member of Survivors First. “This thing is not going away — it’s going out of fashion, but it’s not going away.”

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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