Phil Saviano, Survivor of Clergy Sex Abuse, Dies at 69

DOUGLAS (MA)
New York Times

November 28, 2021

By Katharine Q. Seelye

He played a pivotal role in helping The Boston Globe uncover the widespread scandal in the Catholic Church and was portrayed in the movie “Spotlight.”

Phil Saviano carried a terrible secret for much of his life — that in the early 1960s, when he was 11, he was sexually molested by his parish priest in Massachusetts.

Nearly 30 years later, suffering from AIDS and believing he would soon die, he decided to go public about the abuse and disclosed his experience to The Boston Globe. As it happened, Mr. Saviano lived, and he went on to play a pivotal role in bringing to light the widespread pedophile priest scandal coursing through the Roman Catholic Church.

He provided key information and guidance for a series of articles by The Globe’s Spotlight team, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003. And his role was dramatized in the Academy Award-winning 2015 movie “Spotlight,” which showed how the church had hidden its crimes and how The Globe had uncovered them.

Mr. Saviano died on Sunday in Douglas, Mass., at the home of his brother, Jim. He was 69.

Jim Saviano said that his brother had been in failing health for some time. He underwent heart bypass surgery this year, then had a stroke and was diagnosed with aggressive gall bladder cancer.

A relentless and determined activist, Phil Saviano documented the actions of dozens of pedophile priests in the Boston area and coaxed other survivors to go public with their stories. He helped educate the Spotlight team about how priests had groomed their victims for eventual seduction and how the church had knowingly shuttled rogue priests to different parishes, where they often went on to abuse other children.

Phil Saviano was a relentless and determined activist who documented the actions of dozens of pedophile priests in the Boston area and coaxed other survivors to go public with their stories.Credit...Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press
Phil Saviano was a relentless and determined activist who documented the actions of dozens of pedophile priests in the Boston area and coaxed other survivors to go public with their stories. Credit…Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

“Think of the enormity of what the church had been hiding for so long,” Walter V. Robinson, the former editor of the Spotlight team, said in an interview for this obituary in September. “That was a lot of combustible material, and it was Phil more than anyone else who set it ablaze.”

As a boy, Mr. Saviano attended St. Denis Church in Douglas, Mass., in the Diocese of Worcester, west of Boston. There, the Rev. David A. Holley ingratiated himself with Phil and other boys with jokes and card tricks.

At one point, the priest used a deck of cards with pornographic images. He began using cards with increasingly graphic pictures and one day exposed himself to the boys.

“I was forced to masturbate him and forced to give him oral sex,” Mr. Saviano said in a series of interviews for this obituary in September.

In 1992, almost three decades after the abuse, Mr. Saviano saw a newspaper article saying that Father Holley had been sued in New Mexico for sexually molesting other boys. Mr. Saviano thought that he and his friends had been the only victims. In early 1993, when he believed he was dying of AIDS, Mr. Saviano told The Globe that the priest had forced him and two of his friends to have repeated sexual contact with him.

“Being an AIDS patient freed me up to have the courage to do something I might not have done,” he told The Times. “I was dying. I was broke. My reputation in the eyes of many was already in tatters because I was a gay man with AIDS, and we were pariahs back then. I saw this as a way to have an impact, to do some good on my way out.”

After going public, Mr. Saviano asked officials at the Worcester Diocese to pay his expenses for therapy. When they refused, he sued the diocese. He learned from evidence obtained in the early stages of the case that seven bishops in four states had known that Father Holley, whom the church had sent secretly to four different church-run treatment centers, was a serial child molester. (Father Holley was sentenced to up to 275 years in prison in 1993 in New Mexico and died at 80 in prison in 2008.)

The actor Neal Huff played Mr. Saviano in the movie “Spotlight,” which chronicled The Boston Globe’s series about sexual abuse by priests. At left is Rachel McAdams, who played the Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer.Credit...via Photofest
The actor Neal Huff played Mr. Saviano in the movie “Spotlight,” which chronicled The Boston Globe’s series about sexual abuse by priests. At left is Rachel McAdams, who played the Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer.Credit…via Photofest

Church officials offered a modest sum to Mr. Saviano to settle the case on the condition that he sign a confidentiality agreement, as church officials across the country had done with many other survivors. Mr. Saviano refused.

“I said I’m not going to my grave with that secret,” he told The Times. “That would make me no better than the bishops.”

The church ended up giving him a $12,500 settlement and dropped its demand that he sign a nondisclosure agreement. “I think they figured I wasn’t going to be around much longer,” he said.

But by then, powerful new anti-AIDS treatments had been developed, and Mr. Saviano began to recover. He was one of the few who settled a clergy-related sex abuse lawsuit and retained the ability to talk about it.

With that freedom, he connected with other survivors and founded the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a national group, in 1997. He documented their stories, tracked problem priests and collected statistics. Armed with this material, he again approached The Globe, in 1998. But he was met with indifference.

“Phil had for years been viewed as a bit of a conspiracy theorist,” Mr. Robinson, the former Spotlight editor, said. “He had this story that no reporter would believe — that the Catholic Church was engaged in an international criminal conspiracy to cover up the crimes of thousands of priests.”

Three years later, when Martin Baron, the new editor of The Globe, pushed for an investigation into systemic sexual abuse in the church, the Spotlight team circled back to Mr. Saviano.

“We were quite desperately thrashing about trying to find out stuff,” Mr. Robinson said, “when someone said, ‘Phil might know something.’”

Mr. Saviano arrived in the newsroom with a box of documents and talked with the team for four hours. The scene was recreated in the movie “Spotlight,” in which Mr. Saviano is portrayed by the actor Neal Huff.

In that box was a CD with documents from clergy-abuse lawsuits from around the country — detailed documents that Mike Rezendes, a reporter who was part of the Spotlight team, said in an interview were foundational to the team’s understanding of how the church had covered up so many cases of abuse.

“I was just blown away,” Mr. Rezendes said. Mr. Saviano also told the team his personal story of how he had been molested. “When Phil left,” Mr. Rezendes said, “we were simmering with rage and determined to get to the bottom of what happened.”

Mr. Saviano also met with the film’s screenwriter, Josh Singer, reviewed the script and offered pages of suggestions. Some, like the concept of grooming, made it into the film, as did Mr. Saviano’s warning that the abuse was taking place not just in Boston but also across the country.

By 2003, Massachusetts authorities said that as many as 1,000 children had been sexually abused by 250 priests in the Boston archdiocese over 40 years, and that Cardinal Bernard F. Law, the archbishop of Boston, had known of the problem and had covered it up. Cardinal Law was forced to resign in 2002, leaving the archdiocese facing 500 lawsuits and $100 million in damage claims. (He died in 2017.)

Philip James Saviano was born on June 23, 1952, in Worcester, the third of four boys. His mother, Mary (Bombara) Saviano, was a secretary. His father, Pasquale Saviano, was an electrician.

In addition to his brother Jim, he is survived by two other brothers, John and Victor.

Phil graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, in 1975 with a degree in zoology. He enrolled at Boston University to study occupational therapy but changed his mind and earned his master’s degree there in communications in 1979.

He was working in public relations when he discovered he was H.I.V. positive. His mother died in 1976, and he had never told her or his father that he was gay or that he had been abused.

When he finally told his father about his past, in 1993, and that he was going to talk to The Globe, his father was furious.

Mr. Saviano with two others who were abused as children by priests, Bert Smeets and Rita Milla, at a news conference in Voorburg, the Netherlands, in 2011.Credit...Rob Keeris/Associated Press
Mr. Saviano with two others who were abused as children by priests, Bert Smeets and Rita Milla, at a news conference in Voorburg, the Netherlands, in 2011.Credit…Rob Keeris/Associated Press

“He couldn’t understand why in the world I would want to do that,” Mr. Saviano said. For nearly a decade, he and his father were at a standoff over the issue. Then their parish, St. Denis, printed a message in its church bulletin urging people to come forward if they had been abused. His father sent him the bulletin.

“I took that as an opening,” Mr. Saviano said. “I called him up and thanked him, and he said, ‘I realize you’ve been right about this all these years, and I’m proud of you.’”

Recalling the moment, Mr. Saviano started to cry. “That meant so much to me,” he said, as did his father’s next words: “Give ’em hell.”

Mr. Saviano planned his memorial service to be held at St. Denis, the same place where he had been abused. “He wanted to make a statement to the Vatican,” his brother Jim said. “He said, ‘I want them to understand that they haven’t knocked me down.’”

Katharine Q. “Kit” Seelye is a Times obituary writer. She was previously the paper’s New England bureau chief, based in Boston. She worked in The Times’s Washington bureau for 12 years, has covered six presidential campaigns and pioneered The Times’s online coverage of politics. @kseelye 

https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/28/us/phil-saviano-dead.html