CHICAGO — A former employee of the controversial Survivors’ Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination for challenging the organization’s misbehavior, including alleged kickbacks from attorneys who were suing the Church on behalf of sexual-abuse victims.
In the lawsuit, Gretchen Rachel Hammond, a past development director of SNAP, claimed to have been fired after coming to learn “SNAP does not focus on protecting or helping survivors — it exploits them.”
Although the plaintiff “had explicitly stated to potential donors that SNAP did not engage in kickback schemes,” Hammond’s discoveries while employed there allegedly showed otherwise, and the reputed proof is on an external hard drive.
“SNAP routinely accepts financial kickbacks from attorneys in the form of ‘donations.’ In exchange for the kickbacks, SNAP refers survivors as potential clients to attorneys, who then file lawsuits on behalf of the survivors against the Catholic Church,” the lawsuit charges. “These cases often settle, to the financial benefit of the attorneys and, at times, to the financial benefit of SNAP, which has received direct payments from survivors’ settlements.”
Hammond’s attorneys filed the lawsuit against SNAP on Jan. 17 in the Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois. Hammond was employed at SNAP from July 2011 through February 2013, the complaint said.
The lawsuit prompted a flat denial from SNAP President Barbara Blaine.
“The allegations are not true. This will be proven in court. SNAP leaders are now, and always have been, devoted to following the SNAP mission: to help victims heal and to prevent further sexual abuse,” she said in a statement provided to CNA.
According to the SNAP website, Blaine herself says she was abused as an eighth grader by a priest who taught at her Catholic school.
The lawsuit claimed that the organization receives “substantial contributions” from attorneys sometimes totaling more than 40% or 50% of its annual contributions. A prominent Minnesota attorney who represents clergy-abuse survivors reportedly donated several six-figure annual sums, including more than $415,000 in 2008. Other unnamed attorney-donors who represent abuse survivors reportedly came from California, Chicago, Seattle and Delaware.
Hammond claimed that the SNAP leadership provided a list of attorneys who were regular donors and “ordered plaintiff not to reveal to anybody that SNAP received donations from attorneys.”
The lawsuit alleges that, during 2011 and 2012, SNAP “concocted a scheme to have attorneys make donations to a front foundation” in order to conceal attorneys’ “kickbacks.”
SNAP describes itself as “an independent, confidential network of survivors of institutional sexual abuse and their supporters” whose aim is to protect the vulnerable, heal the wounded and expose the truth in an effort to “hold Church institutions responsible for enabling abuse and shielding predators.”
Despite the organization’s self-portrayal, the lawsuit charged, “SNAP is a commercial operation motivated by its directors’ and officers’ personal and ideological animus against the Catholic Church.”
The lawsuit cited an April 26, 2011, email from Executive Director David Clohessy recommending an abuse victim pursue a claim against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee: “Every nickle [sic] they don’t have is a nickle [sic] that they can’t spend on defense lawyers, PR staff, gay-bashing, women-hating, contraceptive-battling, etc.”
Hammond’s lawsuit questions the organization’s treatment of victims. It claims that SNAP “callously disregards the real interests of survivors” and pressures them to “pursue costly and stressful litigation” instead of the survivors’ best interests.
SNAP allegedly uses publicity about victims’ lawsuits to drive fundraising. The group “regularly communicates” with victims’ attorneys and often receives drafts of complaints and “other privileged information,” which it would allegedly use “to generate sensational press releases on the survivors' lawsuits.”
“SNAP and survivors’ attorneys would often base their case-filing strategy on what would generate the most publicity for SNAP — instead of the best interests of the survivors,” the suit charges.
It cites an email of SNAP leaders discussing whether publishing a newsletter item would prompt more donations or upset abuse survivors. One leader said: “My initial response is that we err on the side of using it to raise money.”
The lawsuit claims the organization would “ignore survivors who reached out to SNAP in search of assistance and counseling” and had no grief counselors or rape counselors on payroll at relevant times.
The suit says Hammond helped the organization improve its donation-tracking software system, streamlined its donor list, and helped raise its Better Business Bureau ranking and received a raise for this work.
According to the lawsuit, the plaintiff oversaw the fundraising for SNAP’s trip to The Hague, where the group filed charges against Pope Benedict XVI in the International Criminal Court. SNAP, together with the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, had asked the court to investigate Pope Benedict and other Vatican leaders for crimes against humanity related to sex abuse by U.S. clergy.
Hammond reportedly raised “some $1 million” during and after the trip for a public-relations campaign premised on these charges.
SNAP allegedly used the funds “for lavish hotels and other extravagant travel expenses for its leadership.”
In May 2013 the international court dismissed the case as outside its jurisdiction.
The suit also recounts SNAP’s alleged efforts to counter a blogger critical of the organization and gives what it claims to be background of several trials and legal disputes involving SNAP and priests accused of abuse.
The suit claims that when Hammond attempted to confront superiors about the practices, they engaged in retaliation, resulting in her firing. Now, the lawsuit seeks compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and other relief.
Hammond, who identifies as a transgender woman, is currently a journalist for the Chicago LGBT newspaper the Windy City Times.
CNA contacted attorneys for Hammond but did not receive comment by deadline.