Bishop Accountability
  What took you so long?

By Phil Saviano, former SNAP N. E. Regional Director
Delivered at the Voice of the Faithful First National Conference
Boston MA
July 20, 2002

Good Afternoon.

Just six months ago, I might have begun these remarks by saying that I am speaking on behalf of other victims of clergy sexual abuse. But I don't do that anymore. That's because, lately, victims have been speaking up for themselves. Have you noticed? It is worth noting that if victims hadn't found the courage to speak about their rotten childhood experiences, taking that first step in regaining the power that was stolen from them so long ago, none of us would even be here today!

So, today, I'm going to speak on behalf of this little guy!

Meet Phil Saviano, age 12.

It is ironic for me to stand here before the Voice of the Faithful, since I am NOT faithful. I was, once, but I lost my faith before I'd even gone through puberty. For over a year, I struggled with a priest who cornered me every chance he got.

There are things that I remember even today—the coolness of the dark church basement; the smell of his sickly, sweet cologne; the beads of sweat on his forehead; the force of his hands around my skinny wrist. I remember the sense of being completely trapped as he pushed his penis into my mouth.

What I remember the most, however, is the confusion. I worried greatly that year, about sin and about forgiveness. How could I disobey God's emissary on earth? What would be the greater sin—yelling at a priest, kicking him in an effort to get away? Or giving in to his demands and performing the sex?

Like a good Catholic boy, I obeyed. And then I went to confession.

Trouble was, my abuser was also my confessor. For a 12-year-old kid, that was quite a dilemma. How could I bring it up in confession, without inferring that he, too, was a sinner? Would he get angry with me? And how could he forgive my sins, if he was in sin himself?

Here is how I solved it. I went into the booth, knelt before the screen and recited my sins. "I yelled at my mother. I lied to my brother." Then I said, "And you know the rest."

Never once did he ask for an explanation.

But, so began the doubting and my crisis of faith, at an age when I had neither the intellect nor maturity to handle it. As I proceeded through adolescence I discarded most of the Church's teachings. Like so many other victims, I became a spiritual drifter, and never made it back to shore. All my life, I've seen people gain such peace, strength and fulfillment in the rituals and sacraments of the Catholic Church. I can't imagine what it's like.

I tell you that story because I know you want to understand what happens to clergy abuse victims, and why some of us have such ambivalence towards the Church, even toward faithful Catholics like yourselves. I tell it also because I appreciate that this year, many of you have been going through your own crisis, suddenly questioning your faith like never before. In that sense, we share common ground.

BUT, I would be remiss to stand here and not say to you, "What took you so long?"

I went public with the story of my abuse in 1992, shortly after Barbara Blaine founded the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in Chicago. In 1997, I started the New England chapter of SNAP here in Boston. I quickly became a repository of horror stories, offering support and advice to victims calling from all over the country.

During those 10 years, what disturbed me the most was not the suffering of the victims, or the secrecy and arrogance of church leaders. It was how little most Catholics cared about this problem. The silence from the pews was deafening.

We victims wondered where the Catholic laity was when those notorious Massachusetts priests were sent off to prison in the early 1990s—Fr. Porter, Fr. Holley, Fr. Hanlon, Fr. Robert Kelly. What about Fr. Andrew Greeley's 1993 report in which he estimated that 2 - 4,000 Catholic priests had molested over 100,000 children in this country? Didn't you hear about the resignations of Bishop Sanchez in New Mexico, Bishop Symonds in Florida and Bishop Ziemann in California, all forced out because of sex abuse allegations? Perhaps you missed the news about the $119 million jury award against the Dallas Catholic diocese in the Fr. Rudy Kos case? In Boston this winter, we finally had the trial of Fr. John Geoghan. Yet even he is old news. His victims first went public with their stories 5 years ago, 1997. Just what had we been thinking about all that time? The O.J. Simpson trial? The zooming stock market?

Here's what I think. The bishops and cardinals and 2,000 child-molesting priests have been on a 30-year rampage because we gave them the power to do so. We trusted them, we revered them, we dropped money in the basket every Sunday and never asked where it was going.

But, boy oh boy, look at us now! Whether it was the power of God above, or the Boston Globe that did it, times have sure changed, and I'm thrilled to have lived long enough to see it!

I began by referring to victims taking back their power. That's what you've got to do, too! Make the next 10 years count the most!

You want to keep the faith? Fine. Just change this godforsaken church!

Use your ears to listen to our experiences. Sure, we were once victims, but by finding the courage to speak out and change the world, we've become survivors, and we're worthy of your respect.

Use your voices to get the word out. Challenge your parish priest, call talk radio, write letters to the editor, lobby your legislators to help us get laws passed.

Finally, use your bodies to show some solidarity with us. You think the Cardinal should resign? Then join the picket line down at the Cathedral on Sunday mornings. Or take part in the boycott of Boston Archdiocese masses that is being called for on September 22.

Here is one more thing to think about. I'll call it a quote from the Gospel of Phil Saviano:

'Fear not!

You who rise up to take control of the church, can still get to heaven!

You won't be risking your soul.

You might even save it.'


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.