Phil Saviano, a clergy sex abuse survivor and whistleblower who played a pivotal role in exposing decades of predatory assaults by Catholic priests in the US, has died. He was 69.
Saviano’s story figured prominently in the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight, about the Boston Globe investigation that revealed how scores of priests molested children and got away with it because church leaders covered it up.
He died on Sunday after a battle with gallbladder cancer, said his brother and caregiver, Jim Saviano. In late October, Phil Saviano announced that he was starting hospice care.
“Things have been dicey the last few weeks,” he wrote, asking followers to “give a listen to Judy Collins singing Bird On A Wire and think of me”.
Saviano played a central role in illuminating the scandal, which led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and church settlements with hundreds of victims. The 2002 series earned the Globe the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. Spotlight won Oscars for best picture and best original screenplay. Neal Huff played Saviano.
“My gift to the world was not being afraid to speak out,” Saviano said in mid-November, in a brief telephone interview.
Saviano recalled going to confession at St Denis Church in tiny East Douglas, Massachusetts, as an 11-year-old in the early 1960s. The priest, David Holley, forced him to perform sex acts. Holley died in a New Mexico prison in 2008, while serving a 275-year sentence for molesting eight boys.
“When we were kids, the priests never did anything wrong. You didn’t question them, same as the police,” Jim Saviano said. “There were many barriers put in [Phil’s] way intentionally and otherwise by institutions and generational thinking. That didn’t stop him. That’s a certain kind of bravery that was unique.”
A self-described “recovering Catholic”, Saviano established the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or Snap, an organization working to bring allegations to light. His faith shattered, Saviano leaned on politicians and prosecutors to bring offenders to justice.
“We’re putting our faith in legislators and prosecutors to solve this problem,” he told reporters in 2002.
Mike Rezendes, a member of the Globe team that brought the scandal to light and now an AP investigative reporter, said: “Phil was an essential source during the Spotlight team’s reporting on the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, providing other critical sources, research materials and the names of several accused priests.
“He also shared his own heartbreaking story of abuse, imbuing us with the iron determination we needed to break this horrific story. During our reporting, and over the last 20 years, I got to know Phil well and have never met anyone as brave, as compassionate or as savvy.”
Saviano earned degrees in zoology and communications from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Boston University and worked in hospital public relations. Later, he shifted to entertainment publicity and concert promotion, working closely with Collins, a lifelong friend, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme and others.
In 1991, he became seriously ill with Aids. He went public with his childhood abuse the following year, one of the first survivors to come forward.
“Father Holley forced me and two of my friends to have repeated sexual contact with him,” Saviano told the Globe in the first of many interviews that would lead to widespread prosecutions as the enormity of the scandal became evident.
By the early 2000s, Saviano was spending 10 hours a day on the phone with victims and journalists. He was an outspoken critic of the Vatican’s reluctance to deal decisively with the fallout from the scandal. In 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI hinted to US bishops during a visit that they had mishandled the church’s response, Saviano questioned the pontiff’s decision to hold masses in New York and Washington.
“If he was really serious about the issue, that Mass would not be held in New York. It would be held here in Boston,” he said.
In 2009, suffering kidney failure and unable to locate a match among family or friends, he found a donor after Snap spread the word to 8,000 clergy sex abuse survivors.
The abuse that was exposed as a result of Saviano’s work prompted Cardinal Law, Boston’s highest-ranking churchman, to step down. Globe reporting showed Law was aware of child molesters but covered up their crimes and failed to stop them, instead transferring them from parish to parish without alerting parents or police.
When the archbishop died in Rome in 2017, Saviano asked bluntly: “How is he going to explain this when he comes face to face with his maker?”
In 2019, at the Vatican for an abuse prevention summit convened by Pope Francis, Saviano said he told organizers to release the names of abusive priests around the world along with their case files.
“Do it to launch a new era of transparency. Do it to break the code of silence. Do it out of respect for the victims of these men, and do it to help prevent these creeps from abusing any more children,” he said.
Saviano enjoyed traveling and indigenous art. In 1999, he launched a website, Viva Oaxaca Folk Art, showcasing handmade decorative pieces he bought on trips to southern Mexico and resold to collectors across the US.
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