Phil Saviano, advocate for survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, dies at 69

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In December 1992, Phil Saviano was at the lowest point of his life. He was 40 years old, out of work and dying of AIDS. Leafing through the Boston Globe, looking for last-minute Christmas presents, he saw a small object that contained a familiar name.

He read that a Catholic priest, David A. Holley, was arrested for abusing boys in the 1970s at a church in New Mexico.

“It was a life-changing moment,” Saviano later told the British newspaper Daily Mail. “It was the day that all the bells rang for me. I suddenly saw how naive I had been in assuming he had only done this to me.

Almost three decades earlier, from the age of 11, Saviano had been repeatedly assaulted by Holley at St. Denis Catholic Church in Douglas, Massachusetts. The abuse lasted a year and a half, until Holley left the ward.

With a force born out of desperation, Saviano found his voice and told his story to the Globe, becoming one of the first victims of sexual abuse by a priest to be made public. In 1995, he entered into a financial agreement with the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., Which amounted to $ 5,700 after attorney fees. He turned down a larger payment that would have forced him to remain silent about his childhood trauma. He believed that the only reason he didn’t have to sign a confidentiality agreement was because no one expected him to live.

“If I hadn’t died of AIDS, I wouldn’t have had the courage to come forward,” Saviano told The Globe in 2009, “but by then my career was over, I was on the I couldn’t get out of it physically, my reputation was shot in the eyes of a lot of people, and I didn’t have much to lose. It was a last chance to make changes and address this thing that happened to me as a kid.

Soon after, he received new treatment for HIV / AIDS which helped him regain his health. He found a new sense of purpose as an activist and began to research sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In 1997, he founded a New England chapter of the Priest Abuse Survivors Network (SNAP).

With a background in public relations, Saviano approached The Globe with his proof in 1998, but the newspaper passed the story on. But starting in 2002, under the direction of a new editor, Martin Baron (later editor of the Washington Post), a group of Globe investigative journalists called the Spotlight team published a series of stories detailing the predatory behavior of dozens of Boston-area priests, coupled with a concerted effort by senior church officials to cover up their wrongdoing.

The Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for its articles, which formed the basis of the 2015 film “Spotlight” in which Saviano was played by actor Neal Huff, who has become a close friend. Saviano advised the writers on the screenplay and was on stage at the Oscars, along with the director, producers and cast of the film, when “Spotlight” won the Oscar for Best Picture. (He also won the award for Best Original Screenplay.) Executive producer and co-writer Josh Singer called him a “true hero.”

Saviano was 69 when he died on November 28 at a brother’s house in Douglas. He announced on his Facebook page in October that doctors could no longer cure his gallbladder cancer. In the previous months, he had also had heart surgery and a stroke. The death was confirmed in a statement from his brother Jim Saviano.

After speaking out, Saviano channeled his heartbreaking childhood experience in an effort to tackle wrongdoing in the church. By the time The Globe began its investigation, it had already identified 13 predatory priests and hundreds of victims in the Boston area. When he reviewed church documents, he learned that many priests had been transferred to other parishes across the country without being punished. (The number of priests accused of sexual assault in New England eventually reached hundreds.)

Initially, as a gay defying the authority of the Catholic Church in the early 1990s, Saviano faced a backlash from Church followers and even members of his own family. His father “was angry and accused me of bringing the scandal to our hometown,” Saviano later said.

Growing up in Douglas, a small town about 90 kilometers from Boston, Saviano enjoyed fishing and hiking in the woods. He also delivered newspapers, and one of the stops on his paper route was the rectory of St. Denis Church, where Holley had been newly installed as a priest.

Then, in her forties, Holley was popular with the boys in the church, showing them card tricks and making faces behind the nuns teaching Sunday School. When the priest asked Saviano and another boy to help move hymn boxes or do other odd jobs at church, they felt honored. They got 50 cents each.

“He was preparing us,” Saviano told the Daily Mail in 2015. “The priest finds ways to get closer to the child or the parents. It gives her the opportunity to find out what is going on in our family and at school. I felt lucky enough that this guy was interested in me. For us, he was the representative of God on earth, who could do magic like turning wine into the blood of Christ and forgiving sins.

Then one day when Holley was doing card tricks, the deck of cards contained pornographic images of people engaging in sexual acts. When Saviano, 11, tried to run away, the priest grabbed his wrist and held him back. Years later, Saviano still remembered “the coolness of the dark church basement, the smell of his sickly sweet cologne” and “the feeling of being completely trapped”.

Over the next 18 months, Saviano was repeatedly coerced into performing sexual acts on Holley. The priest once assaulted him behind a door as parishioners walked past, a few meters from him. Another time, Saviano saw the priest imposing himself on another boy at the altar of the church.

“How to say no to God? Saviano’s character says in “Spotlight”.

Saviano didn’t talk about his experiences until he was 40 years old. Holley, meanwhile, worked in churches in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado before receiving a 275-year sentence in 1993 for the sexual assault of eight boys in New Mexico. . He died in prison in 2008.

The Globe revelations, made possible in part by Saviano’s research, shocked people around the world and reverberated throughout the Catholic Church. One of the church’s most powerful figures, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, admitted he had reassigned priests accused of child abuse and did little to stop the plague . He resigned in 2002.

“Finally, the victims are believed first,” Saviano told The Globe that year. “And they are respected instead of being ridiculed and criticized. Most of all, they see that there is power in coming together and speaking out, and you can have results. Laws change, [attorneys general] have pricked up their ears all over the country. These are changes that victims, including me, could only dream of. “

Philip James Saviano was born in Douglas on June 23, 1952. His father was an electrician and his mother was a housewife.

Saviano majored in zoology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, from which he graduated in 1975. He moved to Boston and received a master’s degree in communication from Boston University in 1980. He has worked in public relations and fundraising for a Boston hospital and then ran a concert production company from 1982 to 1991. He also collects and sells Mexican folk art.

His survivors include three brothers.

In addition to forming a New England chapter of SNAP, Saviano ran the organization’s national website for several years and served on its board of directors. He was also on the board of directors of BishopAccountability.org, which documents sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. He traveled widely to give speeches and counsel other survivors. He appeared at the 2020 Vatican summit on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

“Every step they took,” he said of church leaders, “they took it reluctantly. “

Saviano’s experiences with the church caused him to lose all religious faith and he considered himself an agnostic.

“I sometimes find myself envious of people who have strong faith,” he said in 2002. “And I don’t know what it is. There are days when I can’t do this on my own.

Saviano was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, then in 2009 learned he needed a kidney transplant. When no one in his family was worthy of the name, he turned to the network of clergy abuse survivors for help. Several people volunteered, and he eventually received a kidney from a Minnesota woman who said she was sexually assaulted in high school by a former nun.

Among those who had been victimized by priests and church leaders, Saviano was seen as a valiant, articulate and courageous champion who refused to be silenced. He also found respect closer to home and finally reconciled warmly with his father.

“All those years ago,” his father told him, “you were right. Give them hell. “


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