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Key clergy sexual abuse whistleblower Phil Saviano dies at 69


BOSTON – Phil Saviano, a clergy sexual abuse survivor and whistleblower who played a pivotal role in exposing decades of predatory assaults by Catholic priests in the United States, has died. He was 69 years old.

Saviano’s story featured prominently in the 2015 Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” on the Boston Globe investigation which revealed how dozens of priests assaulted children and got away with it because church leaders covered it up. He died Sunday after a battle with gallbladder cancer, said his brother and caregiver Jim Saviano.

In late October, Phil Saviano announced on his Facebook page that he was starting palliative care at his brother’s home in Douglas, Massachusetts, where he died.

“Things have been risky the past few weeks,” he wrote, asking his subscribers to “listen to Judy Collins sing” Bird On A Wire “and think of me.”

Saviano played a central role in bringing the scandal to light, which led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and to church colonies with hundreds of victims. The Globe’s 2002 series won him the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003, and “Spotlight” won the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Actor Neal Huff played Saviano in the film.

“My gift to the world was not to be afraid to speak up,” Saviano said in mid-November in a brief telephone interview with The Associated Press.

Born June 23, 1952, Saviano remembers going to confession as a young boy at St. Denis Church in Little East Douglas, Massachusetts, in the 1960s and whispering his transgressions through a screen to Reverend David Holley. The priest, he said, violated this sacred trust and forced the 11-year-old to engage in sexual acts. Holley died in a New Mexico jail in 2008 while serving a 275-year sentence for assaulting eight boys.

“When we were children, priests never did anything wrong. You didn’t question them, like the police, ”Brother Jim Saviano told the AP. “Many obstacles have been put in its way, intentionally or not, by institutions and generational thinking. It didn’t stop him. It was a certain kind of bravery that was unique.

A self-proclaimed “Catholic in recovery,” Saviano went on to create the New England chapter of the Survivors of Those Abused by Priests Network, or SNAP, an organization that works to bring allegations to light. specific clergy sexual abuse.

His faith in the church shattered, Saviano instead relied on politicians and prosecutors to bring offenders to justice.

“We trust lawmakers and prosecutors to solve this problem,” he told reporters in 2002.

“Phil was a key source during Team Spotlight reporting on the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, providing other critical sources, research documents and the names of several accused priests,” said Mike Rezendes , member of the Globe team. who exposed the scandal and a current investigative journalist for the PA.

“He also shared his own heartbreaking story of abuse, imbuing us with the iron determination we needed to break this horrific story,” said Rezendes. “In our reporting, and over the past 20 years, I have come to know Phil well and I have never met someone so brave, compassionate or astute.”

Saviano received degrees in zoology and communication from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Boston University and began working in hospital public relations. He later turned to entertainment industry advertising and concert promotion, working closely with Collins, a longtime friend and confidant, as well as Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme and others. artists.

In 1991, he fell 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 in a long series that would not only lead to accusations. criminal against the disgraced cleric, but with many lawsuits against others as the enormity of the scandal became evident.

In the early 2000s, Saviano spent 10 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 2008, when Pope Benedict XVI hinted to American bishops on a visit that they had mismanaged the church’s response, Saviano questioned the pontiff’s decision to follow up his remarks with Masses in New York and Washington.

“If he was really serious about the matter, this mass would not be held in New York. It would be held here in Boston, ”he said.

In 2009, suffering from kidney failure and unable to find a match among family or friends, he found a donor after SNAP spread the word in a nationwide email to 8,000 survivors of sexual abuse of the clergy.

The abuses that came to light as a result of Saviano’s work prompted Cardinal Law, Boston’s most senior clergyman, to resign. The Globe report showed Law was aware of child molesters in the priesthood, but covered up their crimes and failed to stop them, instead transferring them from ward to ward without alerting parents or the police.

When the Archbishop died in Rome in 2017, Saviano asked bluntly: “How is he going to explain this when he comes face to face with his creator?”

In 2019, at the Vatican for an abuse prevention summit convened by Pope Francis, Saviano said he asked summit organizers to release the names of abusive priests around the world along with their records.

“Do it to start 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 other children, ”he said.

Although there was a large part of his life, Saviano was very fond of traveling and developed a weakness for native 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 United States. .

He is survived by three brothers, Jim Saviano of Douglas; John Saviano of Douglas; and Victor Saviano of Boston; two nieces; and two nephews. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.