ALTHOUGH he worked diligently for years to expose predatory clergy within the Catholic Church, and won pay-outs for many abused by priests, Phil Saviano, above, only gained international fame when his work was prominently featured in the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight.
The film, according to the National Catholic Reporter, was an account of The Boston Globe’s investigation that revealed how scores of priests molested children and got away with it because church leaders covered it up.
The abuse that came to light as a result of Saviano’s work prompted Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston’s highest-ranking churchman, to step down. The Globe’s reporting showed Law was aware of child molesters in the priesthood but covered up their crimes and failed to stop them, instead transferring them from parish to parish without alerting parents or police.
One priest in Law’s archdiocese, John Geoghan, was alleged to have raped or molested more than 130 children in six different parishes in a career which spanned 30 years. Law was widely denounced for his handling of the sexual abuse cases, and his public image was irreparably tarnished in the aftermath of the scandal.
When the archbishop, above, 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 late October, Phil Saviano announced on his Facebook page that he was starting hospice care at his brother’s home in Douglas, Massachusetts, where he died yesterday (Sunday).
The Globe’s 2002 series earned it the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003, and Spotlight won Academy Awards for best picture and best original screenplay. Actor Neal Huff played Saviano.
Saviano said in mid-November in a brief telephone interview with The Associated Press:
My gift to the world was not being afraid to speak out.
Born June 23, 1952, Saviano recalled going to confession as a young boy at St Denis Church in tiny East Douglas, Massachusetts, in the 1960s and whispering his transgressions through a screen to Fr David Holley.
The priest, he said, violated that sacred trust and forced the 11-year-old to perform sex acts. Holley died in a New Mexico prison in 2008 while serving a 275-year sentence for molesting eight boys.
His brother Jim told the AP:
When we were kids, the priests never did anything wrong. You didn’t question them, same as the police. There were many barriers put in his 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 went on to establish the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, an organisation working to bring specific allegations of clergy sexual abuse to light.
Said Mike Rezendes, a member of the Globe team that brought the scandal to light and a current AP investigative reporter:
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 began working in hospital public relations. Later, he shifted to entertainment industry publicity and concert promotion, working closely artists such as Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Torme.
In 1991, he became seriously ill with AIDS and went public with his childhood abuse the following year, becoming 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 said in an interview with the Globe – the first of many that would lead not only to criminal charges against the disgraced cleric but widespread prosecutions of others as the enormity of the scandal became evident.
By the early 2000s, Saviano was spending ten 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 2009, suffering kidney failure and unable to locate a match among family or friends, he found a donor after SNAP spread the word in a nationwide email to 8,000 clergy sex abuse survivors.
In 2019, at the Vatican for an abuse prevention summit called convened by Pope Francis, Saviano said he told summit organisers to release the names of abusive priests around the world along with their case files. He said:
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.
Saviano enjoyed traveling extensively and developed a soft spot for Indigenous art. In 1999, he launched an e-commerce website, Viva Oaxaca Folk Art, showcasing handmade decorative pieces he purchased on trips to southern Mexico and resold to collectors across the US.
He is survived by three brothers, Jim Saviano of Douglas; John Saviano of Douglas; and Victor Saviano of Boston; two nieces; and two nephews.