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4 Takeaways from the SNAP Annual Conference

Updated: Nov 4

Before I began wrestling with the full reality of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in 2018, I had certainly heard of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). I didn’t know much, but I had a vague impression that SNAP was a group that hated the Catholic Church and gave angry press conferences targeting Catholic leaders.


Obviously, I have learned a lot in the last two years, which is how I found myself spending my 39th birthday attending SNAP’s annual conference online. The conference took place on a virtual platform September 25, 26, and 27, with a packed schedule of presentations, workshops, roundtable discussions, support groups, and even a musical concert. (You can view the program booklet here if you would like to see more details.)


I attended as many events as I could, connected and conversed with all sorts of people, and took many pages of notes on everything. I am happy to see that videos of most of the talks are available online. If you have some time to watch, I would particularly recommend the keynote talk from Bishop Accountability, giving an update on the past year.


There’s no way I can capture all of my impressions in one blog post, so I thought it might be helpful to condense my thoughts into four key themes I picked up throughout the conference:


1. The Importance of Creating a Safe Space


People who have experienced trauma - especially betrayal by religious authorities - can be understandably reluctant to let their guard down. It’s risky for any person to make themselves vulnerable with other human beings, but when your vulnerability has been taken advantage of by people you thought you could trust, it’s even harder to trust again. This is why it is so important for abuse survivors to find spaces where they can feel safe.


The honest truth is that the Catholic Church does not feel like a safe space for many survivors. I could list many reasons why this is the case, and many ways I think Catholics should work to change this, but I also think we need to accept the reality that many survivors need to find sanctuary somewhere else.


What I heard at the SNAP conference, over and over, is that SNAP is that safe space for so many people who have been wounded. I heard people say that a SNAP leader was the first person they told about their abuse, that a SNAP support group saved their life during a very dark time, that they were so grateful to find a community where they would be listened to, accepted, and understood.


I felt privileged to attend a SNAP online support group meeting during this conference. While obviously the details of what was shared there are private, I will tell you that I witnessed something beautiful, and yes, holy in that gathering. As each person had an opportunity to share what was on their mind and their heart, participants offered one another genuine friendship, compassion, and support. This was sacred sharing, made possible only because SNAP feels like a safe space for so many survivors.


2. A Singular Focus on the Welfare of Survivors


I have heard many leaders in the Catholic Church talk about putting survivors first, listening to survivors’ voices, and the like. What I saw at the SNAP conference was those aspirations put into action. Over and over, I heard speakers and discussion leaders bring the conversation back to how we can best support survivors.


The entire conference was framed with an awareness of the needs of survivors, guidance for engaging with potentially-triggering content, and an invitation to reach out for support at any time. A lawyer who spoke began by recognizing the courage of survivors and inviting them to always consider first whether going public or pursuing legal action will help in their healing or not. Another presenter began with the principle that “helping one survivor is a world-changing event.” He focused on how we can best reach survivors who are suffering in silence and highlighted four gifts we can give survivors: respect, listening, patience, and tolerance. Throughout the conference, support groups, workshops, and even music were offered to address mental health, self-care, reflection, and other healing practices.


While most of what “outsiders” see from SNAP is press conferences, media statements, and protests, the majority of SNAP’s work is much quieter, taking place through phone calls, emails, support groups, and (during non-pandemic times) lots of individual conversations. My sense is that all the public work we see flows from behind-the-scenes engagement with those who have been abused.


3. Doors Open to All


SNAP doesn’t question people before entry, testing the validity of their claims, making sure their abuser fits in a particular category. While SNAP got its start with (as its name suggests) those “abused by priests,” the organization has grown and become more inclusive over time, especially in recent years. Many participants were abused by Catholic clergy, while others were victimized by Catholic nuns, school teachers, or lay leaders. Others experienced abuse in different religious environments, including Baptist, Mennonite, Orthodox, Lutheran, and Jewish settings. Some were abused by coaches, scout leaders, police officers, or family members. All were welcomed.


I am particularly passionate about making sure the conversation around sexual abuse in the Catholic Church includes men and women who were abused as adults, who have often been excluded. SNAP has an online support group specifically for those abused as adults, and I was glad to see that awareness of this demographic was very present in the SNAP conference as well. Many presenters spoke inclusively of those who were abused during their adult years. One participant seemed particularly moved by this inclusivity, commenting that it meant a lot to hear that her abuse “counts,” even if she was an adult when it happened.


4. Deep Distrust of the Catholic Church


There is no getting around this reality - many of the folks involved with SNAP have a deep-seated distrust of the Catholic Church. There was a time in my life when I may have felt defensive as people angrily shared their negative experiences with Church authorities or offered sweeping indictments of the Church. Now, I am able to listen to these voices and hear honesty, pain, and righteous anger. I see a perspective shaped by the real experiences of real people. I don’t feel the urge to argue but instead to grieve and apologize for the grave harm that has been done.


As I said earlier, the main focus of this conference was caring for survivors; references to the Catholic Church usually came tangentially. Many of these were in the chat comments from participants as they shared their personal experiences in response to a presentation. I saw comments like “stay away from any church-sponsored programs for victims - it is further pain and agony,” and “they threatened me not to tell," along with many others. One presenter addressed the matter directly: “I am not anti-Catholic. I believe in the teachings of Christ. This is not anti-anything; this is pro-justice, pro-protecting-children.” Another, who had investigated the Catholic Church on the state level in the past few years, described the attitude of Catholic leaders she met with as being “there’s nothing to see here; move along." She said she would sometimes leave a meeting thinking, “Well, we were just lied to.” Another presenter strongly encouraged victims not to engage in a process with any Diocesan Review Board, which he called a “kangaroo court” made up of "deeply religious people who are invested in protecting the institution."


For me, the hardest thing to hear was one veteran advocate who spoke with compassion and pity for those who try reporting to the Church: “They think if they dial the number, someone is going to help them.” The implication was that he wished they understood that contacting the Church would only lead to more suffering. I know that this is not true in every single case today, but my experiences do lead me to believe that this prediction is the sad reality much of the time. The distrust of the Catholic Church that I saw at the SNAP conference comes from real-life painful encounters that continue to happen today. (Even my survivor friends who remain devout Catholics have experienced much suffering because of the response of the Church when they tried to report their abuse.) I do have hope that Catholics are getting better, but I can also understand the reasons why one speaker made this proclamation: “The Church doesn’t care about you. It never will.”


All that said, I will tell you that in the first roundtable discussion I attended, I decided to “out” myself as a Catholic and be direct about the fact that I hope to work for change within the Church. I was a bit nervous, but I believe in transparency and I thought it might be helpful for participants to know that there are Catholics who really do care. I was met with perhaps mild surprise, but also acceptance and interest. It turns out that there were quite a few other practicing Catholics in attendance, some from organized groups but many who just were attending to listen and learn. I enjoyed speaking with many people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, about how we can effectively engage Catholic lay people in speaking up for survivors.




All in all, I found the SNAP conference to be a really valuable learning experience. I met good people and had good conversations. I am grateful that SNAP exists as a safe space for survivors who really need one.


I may not have agreed with every word that was spoken throughout the weekend, but ultimately, I discovered that as a Catholic, this conference was a safe place for me too.



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As always, I will end this blog post with a prayer. Please join me:


God, we thank you for the courage of those survivors who have spoken up about their abuse and dedicated themselves to supporting others and working for change.


Thank you for the ways SNAP has pushed the Catholic Church to be accountable

and has provided a safe space for those who have been harmed.


We pray for any survivors who remain isolated or afraid, that you will help them find the support they need - through family, friends, therapy, the Church, support groups, or any other source that will help them find healing and peace.


Amen.

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©2020 by Sara Larson