Phil Saviano, clergy abuse victim who refused to stay silent, dies at 69

Rejecting a confidentiality agreement, he inspired others to tell their stories

Mr. Saviano played a critical part in uncovering the church coverup of sexual abuse of minors. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file/2016

Phil Saviano was near death from AIDS three decades ago and thousands of dollars in debt when the Worcester Diocese tried to silence him with a settlement that would have prevented him from publicly revealing that he had been sexually abused by a priest when he was a boy.

“I just couldn’t agree to it,” Mr. Saviano told the Globe in 1995. “I knew if I did I would just be contributing to their campaign to look away and shut everybody up.”

By refusing to sign a confidentiality agreement, he received a smaller settlement that kept him in financial peril. But his principled stand became a landmark moment in victims’ efforts to expose the Catholic Church’s worldwide history of covering up the abuse of children.

Mr. Saviano, whose personal story and precise documentation of priests who assaulted children helped inform The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the clergy sexual abuse crisis, was 69 when he died Sunday at his brother’s home in Douglas.

“He was a true survivor, and I think through his story he gave other victims a blueprint for how to turn this trauma into something empowering,” Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, said of Mr. Saviano, shown in 2012. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

Along with emotionally surviving the sexual abuse inflicted on him, he had lived for years with an HIV diagnosis, a kidney transplant, and more recently gallbladder cancer that spread to the liver.

Through it all he became one of the most internationally prominent voices among victims seeking justice, even traveling to Rome in 2019 to meet with Vatican officials before they met in a conference about clergy sex abuse.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that Phil’s impact has been global,” said Anne Barrett Doyle, codirector of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks allegations against priests.

“He was also a man who triumphed,” she said. “He was a true survivor, and I think through his story he gave other victims a blueprint for how to turn this trauma into something empowering.”

Working first with church documents about his own case that he obtained through his court actions, Mr. Saviano became a meticulous keeper of records as he listened to the stories of countless victims who sought his help and valued his counsel.

“I quickly became a repository of horror stories, offering support and advice to victims calling from all over the country,” he said in a 2002 speech.

The first misdeeds he publicized were those of the Rev. David Holley, who had sexually assaulted him in St. Denis Church in Douglas, a small town south of Worcester.

By reaching out to reporters and to organizations that also were gathering information, and by founding the New England Chapter of SNAP — the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests — Mr. Saviano helped set off what became a flood of public accusations throughout the state, across the country, and around the world.

“In a true sense, that information explosion can be traced back to Phil, and Phil’s case, and Phil’s experience as a little 11-year-old boy in a tiny Massachusetts town,” said Terence McKiernan, founder and codirector of BishopAccountability.org.

“Phil’s experience isn’t just an individual experience or a Massachusetts experience,” McKiernan said. “It has become a universal experience.”

But when Mr. Saviano first went public in 1992, he thought he might soon die.

“If I had not been dying of AIDS, I would not have had the courage to come forward, but at that point my career was over, I was on my way out physically, my reputation was shot in the eyes of many people, and I didn’t have a lot to lose,” he recalled in a 2009 Globe interview. “This was a final opportunity to effect some change and address this thing that happened to me when I was a kid.”

When the advent of protease inhibitors to treat HIV/AIDS prolonged Mr. Saviano’s life, he kept speaking out until the end through a series of health issues.

Not least among them was a crisis on that night in 2016 when “Spotlight,” the movie based on the Globe’s clergy sex abuse coverage, won the Academy Award for best picture.

In Los Angeles for the ceremony, Mr. Saviano accidently injured himself while administering medication in a shot to his abdomen. Bleeding internally, he went to a hospital, where a doctor thought his life was ebbing away.

“The doctor said, ‘I have to check you in,’ and Phil said, ‘I have to go to this show. We have to show that a survivor is there, and I’m going to be there one way or another,’ " recalled the singer Judy Collins, a longtime friend who was performing elsewhere in Los Angeles that night.

When the best picture was announced, Mr. Saviano joined the film’s director, producers, actors, and Globe reporter Michael Rezendes on stage — more than 50 years after those frightening childhood encounters he had endured in the St. Denis Church basement.

Once again, he had lived to ensure that victims were recognized, though he hastened to the hospital moments after sharing the Oscar spotlight.

“Phil is a real, real survivor. That’s his genius,” said the actor Neal Huff, who was with him at the Academy Awards and portrayed Mr. Saviano in the film. “He’s one of the greats of our time. He truly is.”

Philip James Saviano was born on June 23, 1952, a son of Pasquale Saviano, an electrician, and Mary Bombara Saviano, who had worked as a secretary before raising the couple’s four sons.

Growing up on a dead-end street in Douglas, the boys were walking distance from a river where they went fishing and a pond for skating in the winter.

“We were all very much nature’s children,” said Mr. Saviano’s older brother Jim, who still lives in Douglas. “My parents had no fear of us going into the woods and coming back after dark.”

Young Phil was a paperboy, which brought him into regular contact with Holley. Those early terrifying experiences are highlighted in a tentative title for Mr. Saviano’s memoir, which he was working on even in his final days: “Spilling Secrets: From Newsboy to Spotlight.”

“I lost my faith before I’d even gone through puberty. For over a year, I struggled with a priest who cornered me every chance he got,” Mr. Saviano wrote in remarks he prepared for a searing, healing speech he delivered in Boston in 2002 at the first national convention of the Voice of the Faithful.

“There are things that I remember even today — the coolness of the dark church basement; the smell of his sickly, sweet cologne; the beads of sweat on his forehead; the force of his hands around my skinny wrist,” he said.

“What I remember the most, however, is the confusion,” Mr. Saviano added. “I worried greatly that year, about sin and about forgiveness. How could I disobey God’s emissary on earth?”

It was only as an adult that he would break through the struggle and speak out, though among the traits and talents he brought to rising up against the church was his even demeanor.

“I don’t remember a moment of rancor or bitterness from Phil over all the tribulations that were visited upon him by the actions of the Catholic Church,” said Walter Robinson, who led the Globe Spotlight Team’s investigation.

Mr. Saviano also had an innate gift for public relations.

The third of four brothers, he graduated from Douglas Memorial High School, received a bachelor’s degree in zoology from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a master’s in communications from Boston University.

Hired as assistant public relations director at Faulkner Hospital, he soon became director. While coordinating fund-raising, he arranged for a 1982 benefit concert at Symphony Hall featuring Judy Collins.

Leaving Faulkner, he launched Special Delivery Productions, his concert promotion company, working on shows by artists such as Diahann Carroll, Barbara Cook, Laura Nyro, and Ella Fitzgerald, whom he once helped back to a chair on Symphony Hall’s stage in 1985 after she was treated for an ankle injury she suffered in a tumble early in the performance.

Among those whose concerts he promoted, Collins was Mr. Saviano’s closest friend. “He’s so special to me,” she said by phone in October.

“He was a family member. There’s no other way to put it,” Collins said. “We have had so many things in our friendship, so many wonderful talks, and so many triumphs. He was around for a lot of the good things and bad things in my life.”

That included when her son, Clark, died by suicide in 1992 and she went on to write the 2003 book “Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival, and Strength.” Collins said she could speak with Mr. Saviano at times when it seemed impossible to speak with anyone else.

“I’m honored to be able to speak for my friend,” she said of Mr. Saviano. “I’ve got a song called ‘Communion’ that’s absolutely based on Phil’s life. I will get it recorded someday.”

Mr. Saviano (third from left) joined members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in front of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, in 2011. The group was protesting that no high-ranking Roman Catholic leaders had been prosecuted for sheltering guilty priests. ROB KEERIS/Associated Press

In August 2001, soon after the Globe’s then-new editor Martin Baron instructed the Spotlight Team to make investigating allegations against priests its top priority, Mr. Saviano visited the reporters to offer what he called “a graduate-level seminar in clergy abuse.”

“When he finished, there was a stunned silence in the room. I think we were all simmering with rage — there’s no other way to put it,” Rezendes recalled.

“He gave us a much-needed tutorial,” Robinson said. “I think until that moment, we didn’t have a sense that what we were looking at was in any way as big a scandal as it became.”

Mr. Saviano was “more than just an abuse survivor and advocate and inspirational figure,” said David Clohessy, former national director of SNAP.

Through countless conversations with survivors and the way he encouraged many of them to take on more significant public roles, Mr. Saviano played an incalculable role in the movement to combat clergy sex abuse.

“It’s really hard to even estimate not only the number of survivors he comforted, but the number of survivors he guided to become leaders in their own right, Clohessy said.

In addition to his brother Jim, Mr. Saviano leaves his brothers John of Douglas and Victor of Dorchester.

A funeral Mass will be said for Mr. Saviano but plans were not immediately available.

“He is a hero to our family,” Jim said.

Among Mr. Saviano’s close friends, one who became a de facto relative, was Susan Pavlak of Minnesota, who donated a kidney in 2009 to keep him alive.

“His persistence in pursuing the information, and his civility, has changed the face of the Catholic Church,” said Pavlak, who as a girl was molested by her high school religion teacher, a former nun.

Mr. Saviano with his kidney donor, Susan Pavlak, in 2019. Barry Chin/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

“Phil was a symbol of healing and triumph for the survivor community that could not have been accomplished in a more mythic way, in my view,” she said. “Plus he earned it.”

A collector of Mexican folk art and an inveterate traveler, Mr. Saviano encouraged abuse victims — and everyone, really — to “find something that you enjoy, that brings joy to yourself, whether it’s music, cooking, gardening. I feel that we only go around once in life, and we should try to make the most of it.”

In a phone conversation earlier this month, he offered final words of advice to victims everywhere — to do as he did, to speak out.

“Let go of the silence,” he said. “It hurts nobody but yourself.”

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