Story by Jeremiah Knupp & photos by Holly Marcus, senior contributors
The conversation begins on the condition of anonymity, the topic a deeply personal and painful one for this man – his abuse as a teenager at the hands of a Catholic priest.
He’s come to Harrisonburg to meet with a group of fellow survivors of sexual abuse. The group is part of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests or “SNAP,” a national organization with a mission to “Protect the vulnerable. Heal the wounded. Expose the truth.”
“I couldn’t wait to get here,” the man says of the Harrisonburg SNAP group. “It’s been a lifeline. Literally, a lifeline.”
Founded in 1989 to work with those abused by members of the Catholic Church, SNAP became well known after the Oscar-winning 2015 film Spotlight. The film is about The Boston Globe‘s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into abuse within the city’s Catholic churches, which journalists worked with members of SNAP to report.
Over the last two decades, the organization has opened up to survivors from outside the Catholic faith, including other religious groups and people who suffered abuse in organizations like the Boy Scouts. It now has over 25,000 members worldwide.
“In some ways, from the very beginning, it was always a philosophy of we didn’t check I.D.s at the door. We welcomed all survivors,” said Tim Lennon, president of SNAP’s board of directors. “In the recent period I have talked to people from the gymnast community, Buddhists, victims of Hollywood producers, all in the effort to help them establish their own kind of networks. So it’s pretty broad and we’re pretty welcoming.”
The Harrisonburg group was the first founded for survivors of abuse in the Mennonite church. One of its founders, Barbra Graber, was abused as a child by her father and other members of the Mennonite community in Iowa where she grew up. Graber attended the SNAP national conference in 2014 and took the group’s leadership training the following year. The local group held its first meeting in August of 2015. (Two other Mennonite-focused chapters in Pennsylvania have formed since then.)
“This is peer support,” says Graber, who sees herself as a facilitator rather than a leader. “These groups are happening in 79 countries around the world. It’s pretty cool to sit in a room together and realize that there are so many people around the world doing the same thing.”
“The groups are really about not feeling alone, because we were abused alone,” Graber says. “We were abused in isolated settings. You’re just alone as a survivor. You just feel so much isolation and shame.”
Group member Don Walters is from a different faith background but finds parallels in their experiences.
“Grooming, trust, violation, cover-up. I looked up SNAP Mennonite and I read Barbra’s story and I thought, ‘It’s the same.’ Every religion has got it,” he says.
Betty Knicely also suffered abuse within the Mennonite community.
“I had read about SNAP online, but I didn’t realize that there was a local chapter of it,” she recalls. “A friend told me there was a SNAP leader in Harrisonburg who held meetings and I was like, ‘Yes!'”
“Survivors have something to offer survivors,” Walters says.
The group is also open to spouses, family members and friends of survivors.
“When you’re a survivor people close to you are really affected by it,” Graber says. “If you’re partnered with a survivor and you’re not a survivor it can be really difficult.”
Walters attends with his wife, Sandy.
“Because [survivors] have such shared experiences, it’s kind of like an old friend, because your experiences are so vivid it’s like it happened yesterday and you can relate to them,” Sandy explains. “You can’t relate to anyone else. They have something in common with you that no one else can share… The people in SNAP, those people are life savers for people who have been abused.”
Through 43 years of marriage Sandy has witnessed her husband’s struggles with the abuse he experienced.
“It is like PTSD. They do have the flashbacks and night sweats and the triggers,” Sandy says. “And it is like it just happened yesterday. And they do think about it all the time, even though they are going through the motions of everyday life, raising kids and having a family and working and all of that, it’s still going through their mind all day long, every single day of their life.”
Similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous model, each meeting starts with group members taking turns reading through the SNAP statement of purpose and meeting ground rules. Then, during the first half of the meeting, everyone has an opportunity to speak uninterrupted. The second half is devoted to an open discussion.
Some months, no one attends. Other times, as many as six come. For many, the hardest step is the first one through the door.
“People talk about how they drove by the place where the meeting was like six times and didn’t stop or couldn’t get out of the car to go in. It’s very, very scary the first time you come and the first time you show your face,” Graber says. “And to come means you have to own that you are a survivor, and that’s hard – that you were victimized, that it wasn’t your fault, but that this happened to you. Accepting the reality.”
Knicely, who has been coming to the group for nine months, has attended other survivors’ support groups but has found the SNAP model to be the best fit for her.
“Sometimes I choose not to talk,” she says. “It’s really important to have choices and not be forced into things.”
The confidential nature of the meetings is a central tenet of the SNAP model, and even the location of the groups’ meetings is a secret.
“There’s safety, anonymity and confidentiality for the survivor who comes here,” Graber says.
“Every individual is unique and what people find supportive and helpful as they heal is unique. It really depends on the individual,” said Maria Simonetti, executive director of the Collins Center, a sexual violence prevention organization based in Harrisonburg. “We respect where people are at individually in their healing and on their journey from victim to survivor. If we’re not the right fit and someone is looking for a support group we would certainly let them know what is available in the community.”
The Walters drive two and a half hours each way from their home in West Virginia to attend Harrisonburg’s meeting. According to Lennon, the SNAP network hopes technology can make their survivors’ groups more accessible. Video conferencing – which, Graber says, the Harrisonburg group will begin using in May – will allow survivors from anywhere to participate.
The interview, conducted before the March meeting officially begins, winds down, and Don Walters changes his initial decision to share his experiences anonymously.
“I don’t care if you use my name,” he says – a sign, perhaps, of the strength that survivors gain together.
The Harrisonburg SNAP group meets at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month. For more information, contact Barbra Graber at [email protected].
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