Phil Saviano, a clergy sex abuse survivor and whistleblower who played a pivotal role in exposing decades of predatory assaults by Roman Catholic priests in the United States, has died. He was 69.
Saviano’s story figured prominently in the 2015 Oscar-winning film “Spotlight” about The Boston Globe’s investigation that revealed how scores of priests molested children and got away with it because church leaders covered it up. He died on 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 hospice care at his brother’s home in Douglas, Massachusetts, where he died.
“Things have been dicey the last few weeks,” he wrote, asking followers to “give a listen to Judy Collins singing ‘Bird On A Wire’ and think of me.”
Saviano played a central role in illuminating the scandal, which led to the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and church settlements with hundreds of victims. 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 in the film.
“My gift to the world was not being afraid to speak out,” Saviano said in mid-November in a brief telephone interview with The Associated Press.
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 the Rev. 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.
“When we were kids, the priests never did anything wrong. You didn’t question them, same as the police,” brother Jim Saviano told the AP. “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 organization working to bring specific allegations of clergy sexual abuse to light.
His faith in the church shattered, Saviano instead leaned on politicians and prosecutors to bring offenders to justice.
“We’re putting our faith in legislators and prosecutors to solve this problem,” he told reporters in 2002.