Esquire [New York NY]
November 29, 2021
By Charles P. Pierce
The activist has died at age 69.
Phil Saviano never let go. From the time in the basement of St. Denis Church, when he was molested by a priest named David Holley, through the years of cover-ups and denials, through the belated—and ongoing—vindication of himself and thousands of other victims in the early 1990s, through a lifetime of deadly medical problems that began with an AIDS diagnosis in 1992 to the cancer that finally killed him over the weekend, Phil Saviano just would…not…let…go. He would not let go of the crimes coated with candle wax, their stench camouflaged by incense. He sunk his teeth into an institutional Roman Catholic Church that had turned into an international conspiracy to obstruct justice, and he hung on with the kind of strength of character that we little Catholic schoolchildren had been taught was the martyr’s true glory. The truth set him free, but it took its sweet goddamn time getting around to it. From the Boston Globe:
“If I had not been dying of AIDS, I would not have had the courage to come forward, but at that point my career was over, I was on my way out physically, my reputation was shot in the eyes of many people, and I didn’t have a lot to lose,” he recalled in a 2009 Globe interview. “This was a final opportunity to effect some change and address this thing that happened to me when I was a kid.” When the advent of protease inhibitors to treat HIV/AIDS prolonged Mr. Saviano’s life, he kept speaking out until the end through a series of health issues.
By now, most people know Saviano’s story because it was so central to Spotlight, the Academy Award-winning account of how the Globe’s investigative unit finally ran the story to ground in the Archdiocese of Boston. (Neal Huff played Saviano in a couple of brilliant scenes.) It turns out that, at least for Saviano, even the movie’s triumph was a complicated business.
In Los Angeles for the ceremony, Mr. Saviano accidently injured himself while administering medication in a shot to his abdomen. Bleeding internally, he went to a hospital, where a doctor thought his life was ebbing away. “The doctor said, ‘I have to check you in,’ and Phil said, ‘I have to go to this show. We have to show that a survivor is there, and I’m going to be there one way or another,’ ” recalled the singer Judy Collins, a longtime friend who was performing elsewhere in Los Angeles that night.
When the best picture was announced, Mr. Saviano joined the film’s director, producers, actors, and Globe reporter Michael Rezendes on stage—more than 50 years after those frightening childhood encounters he had endured in the St. Denis Church basement.
The movie was quite honest about how every major institution in the city, which definitely included the Globe, blew off Saviano and his organization for at least a decade. At that time, the Globe had a devout Catholic editor and, when Bernard Cardinal Law called down the power of God on the newspaper—this actually happened—the editor decreed that there would be no more stories about accused priests. Law had scared it off great work by reporter Allison Bass in 1992. My old friend Ande Zellman was the editor of the paper’s Sunday magazine at the time, and she ran a long story anyway about the crimes of Father James Porter in Fall River. The editor went completely crazy and ended up throwing a copy of the magazine at Ande. The story died at the newspaper until 2001. This is a little of what Phil Saviano was up against. He never let go.
(A later, groundbreaking piece on the scandal was written by Kristen Lombardi in the Boston Phoenix, who went long on the crimes of Father John Geoghan, and the cover-up thereof, in March of 2001, nine months before the Globe’s massive series ran. One of the movie script’s great flaws is that it mentions Lombardi’s work in the Phoenix in only one scene, and then as a punchline.)
In case you haven’t noticed, the conservative elements of the institutional Church, many of whom either actively participated in the cover-ups or attacked the people who revealed them, are feeling their oats again. This despite the fact that, even under Papa Francesco, the institutional Church hasn’t remotely atoned for the previous scandal. We have members of the Clan of the Red Beanie in open—and undeniably political—revolt. We have parish priests inveighing against vaccine mandates. (The applause is worse than the nonsense this crackpot is spouting from the pulpit.) We need a lot more Phil Savianos to save a lot of souls. And may perpetual light shine upon him
Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976.