By Ralph Cipriano
A lawsuit filed in Chicago by a former employee of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests [SNAP] alleges that the nonprofit's top officials routinely accepted kickbacks from plaintiff's lawyers, as well as colluded with them to orchestrate negative publicity against the Catholic Church.
The explosive lawsuit was filed on Jan. 17th by Gretchen Rachel Hammond, a former director of development for SNAP. In the lawsuit, Hammond's lawyers claim she was fired in a "retaliatory discharge" before she could report SNAP's kickback schemes to the government. The story of the lawsuit was first reported on Jan. 18th by the National Catholic Reporter.
In Philadelphia, SNAP has been an outspoken advocate for Danny Gallagher, AKA "Billy Doe," the credibility-challenged former altar boy who claimed he was raped by two priests and a Catholic schoolteacher. SNAP also has urged District Attorney Seth Williams to continue to prosecute Msgr. William J. Lynn, now facing a retrial on one charge of endangering the welfare of a child, namely Gallagher. Even though Lynn has already served 33 months of his original 36-month minimum sentence, plus 18 months of house arrest.
SNAP has been closely associated with Mariana Sorensen, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who wrote the error-filled 2011 grand jury report calling for the arrests of Lynn, three other priests, and a former Catholic schoolteacher. Sorensen also has served as a member of SNAP's board of directors.
Sorensen and SNAP have been advocating for extending the statute of limitations in Pennsylvania, so that alleged victims of sex abuse can file more civil lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
In 2007, Marci Hamilton, a Yeshiva University law professor and SNAP advocate, convened a conference in New York City, "Call To Action," to promote legislative efforts in states around the country to lift statutes of limitations regarding sex abuse victims.
Hamilton introduced Sorensen at the conference by saying she was a member of "by far the best D.A.'s office in the country."
It was Sorensen, however, who, according to the testimony of Detective Joseph Walsh last week, was not swayed when Walsh told her about numerous inconsistencies in Danny Gallagher's stories of abuse; inconsistencies that Gallagher had no explanation for when repeatedly confronted by Walsh.
"You're killing my case" is what Walsh quoted Sorensen as telling him.
In the Chicago lawsuit, Hammond said that when she was hired by SNAP in 2011, she "was deeply excited to apply her professional experience in non-profit fundraising to the noble endeavor of helping victims who had suffered sexual assaults at the hands of trusted clergy members."
But Hammond discovered that "SNAP does not focus on protecting or helping survivors," the lawsuit says. Instead, "it exploits them" while "routinely accepts financial kickbacks from attorneys in the form of 'donations,'" according to the lawsuit filed by attorneys Bruce C. Howard and Richard S. Wilson of Chicago.
"In exchange for kickbacks, SNAP refers survivors as potential clients to attorneys, who then file lawsuits on behalf of the survivors against the Catholic Church," the suit says. "These cases often settle, to the financial benefit of the attorneys and, at times, to the financial benefit of SNAP, which has received direct payment from survivors' settlements."
There is a gravy train that benefits the few victims of sex abuse whose claims fall within the statute of limitations.
Danny Gallagher collected $5 million from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia in a civil settlement for his alleged pain and suffering. But he didn't meet his civil lawyer through SNAP. When asked on the witness stand during a criminal trial who hooked him up with his civil lawyer so he could sue the Church, Gallagher said under oath that the D.A.'s office did it.
In Chicago, the lawsuit filed by Hammond says that besides taking money from civil lawyers, SNAP also swaps information.
"SNAP also regularly communicates with attorneys about their lawsuits on behalf of survivors, receiving drafts of pleadings and other privileged information," the lawsuit says. "The attorneys and SNAP work together in developing the legal theories and strategies of survivors' lawsuits. Attorneys and SNAP base their strategy not on the best interests of the survivor, but on what will generate the most publicity and fundraising opportunities for SNAP."
"When Plaintiff discovered that SNAP was colluding with survivors' attorneys, she confronted her superiors to report her discovery," the lawsuit says. "In return, SNAP began taking retaliatory actions against Plaintiff, which resulted in Plaintiff suffering from stress and depression that manifested in health problems."
SNAP ultimately fired Hammond in 2013. The lawsuit claimed that SNAP's "betrayal of its mission and harsh treatment" of Hammond has "robbed" her of the "joy she once held for her chosen profession in nonprofit fundraising."
Hammond's lawsuit cites Barbara Blaine, SNAP's founder and president, David Clohessy, SNAP executive director, and Barbara Dorris, SNAP's outreach director. In the National Catholic Reporter story, Blaine and Clohessy declined comment, saying they hadn't read the lawsuit yet.
But Blaine fired off a denial of the charges last night.
"The allegations are not true," Blaine wrote in an email. "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."
SNAP has 50 regional chapters around the country, including one in Philadelphia. While the nonprofit purports to help victims of sex abuse, "In reality, SNAP is a commercial operation motivated by its directors' and officers' personal and ideological animus against the Catholic Church," the lawsuit says.
The lawsuit offers as proof of SNAP's animus against the church an email Clohessy sent to an abuse survivor recommending that the victim pursue a claim in bankruptcy proceedings against the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
Every nickel "they don't have" is a nickel "that they can't spend on defense lawyers, PR staff, gay-bashing, women-hating, contraceptive-battling, etc," Clohessy is quoted as writing in the email about the Church.
The lawsuit details an alleged kickback scheme between SNAP and plaintiff's lawyers who represent sex abuse victims.
"SNAP's commercial operation is premised upon farming out abuse survivors as clients for attorneys, who then file lawsuits on behalf of the survivors and collect settlement checks from the Catholic Church," the lawsuit states. "In return for client referrals, attorneys reward SNAP with financial kickbacks in the form of donations."
"SNAP then manipulates and exploits media publicity surrounding survivors' lawsuits against the church to raise its own public and drive fundraising efforts," the lawsuit says. While seeking litigation against the church, "SNAP callously disregards the real interests of survivors, using them instead as props and tools in furtherance of SNAP's own commercial fundraising goals."
"Instead of recommending that survivors pursue what is in their best personal, emotional and financial interests, SNAP pressures survivors to pursue costly and stressful litigation against the Catholic Church, all in order to further SNAP's own publicity and fundraising interests."
In Philadelphia, Clohessy called on Seth Williams last August to retry Msgr. Lynn, after his original conviction on one count of child endangerment was overturned for the second time by an appeals court.
"The impending freedom of William Lynn will no doubt feel like yet another blow to hundreds of wounded Philly-area abuse victims and thousands of betrayed Philly-area Catholics," Clohessy wrote. "No matter how uphill it might seem, we hope prosecutors seek a new trial."
Clohessy urged the D.A. to "vigorously [pursue] those who act recklessly, callously and deceitfully with kids' safety."
But Hammond's lawsuit accuses Clohessy and SNAP of exploiting abuse victims. While SNAP supposedly exists to provide support to survivors of clergy abuse, the nonprofit "did not have a single grief counselor or rape counselor on its payroll," the lawsuit says.
In the lawsuit, Hammond said she "routinely received telephone calls at work from distressed survivors." But Hammond had to inform those survivors that she "was a fundraiser, not a counselor," and then listen as survivors "confided to her about their trauma."
Hammond said in her lawsuit that when she told Dorris about her problem, Dorris allegedly told Hammond "to simply not answer phone calls from survivors seeking assistance and counseling."
The lawsuit also alleges that SNAP used funds raised by Hammond "to pay for lavish hotels and other extravagant travel expenses for its leadership." The lawsuit also alleges that SNAP spent $35,000 on legal fees to to defend its leaders against a Missouri trial judge's order to produce documents connected to a violation of a gag order issued by the judge. The case involved a Kansas City priest accused of sexual abuse.
The lawsuit provides details on how financially dependent SNAP is on contributions from lawyers who sue the church on behalf of abuse victims.
Of the $439,577 in total contributions raised by SNAP in 2003, the lawsuit says, 54 percent came from lawyers who represented sex abuse victims. In 2003, just one Minnesota lawyer donated $179,100 to SNAP, which amounted to 40 percent of the nonprofit's total contributions for the year, the lawsuit claims.
In 2007, the lawsuit says, more than 81 percent of the $437,407 SNAP received in contributions came from lawyers, including $167,716 from that same Minnesota lawyer. In 2008, the same lawyer donated $415,140 to SNAP, which amounted to 51 percent of the nonprofit's annual contributions that year.
Besides finances, SNAP also relies on plaintiff's lawyers to provide grist for negative publicity against the church.
"Attorneys would often provide" top SNAP officials with "drafts of complaints and other pleadings prior to filing, along with other privileged information," the lawsuit says. "SNAP would use those drafts to generate sensational press releases on the survivors' lawsuits. SNAP would then issue the press releases to media outlets and schedule a press conference on the day a survivor's lawsuit was filed."
"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 lawsuit says.
The lawsuits states that in November 2012, Clohessy solicited a lawyer on behalf of a victim to file a lawsuit against the church. In that email, Clohessy "asked the attorney when SNAP could expect a donation."
SNAP believed that Hammond, who worked at SNAP from 2011 to 2013, was "planning on reporting SNAP's acceptance of kickbacks to government authorities," the lawsuit states. That's why SNAP retaliated against Hammond by mistreating her, before firing her.
The lawsuits states that in a deposition, Clohessy was asked if SNAP to his knowledge had ever issued a press release that contained "false information."
Clohessy's reply, according to the lawsuit, was: "Sure."
UPDATE: On Tuesday at 9 a.m., Barbara Dorris of SNAP sent out an email saying, "We want to share with you that David Clohessy has voluntarily resigned from SNAP effective Dec. 31, 2016. We are eternally grateful for David's dedication to SNAP and its mission over the past almost 30 years."