The leader of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston on Tuesday praised the courage of Phil Saviano, a clergy sexual abuse survivor who played a key role in bringing the global scandal to light and who died Sunday at the age of 69.
“We are very sorry to hear of the passing of Phil Saviano and are consoled to know that his brother, Jim, accompanied him during his illness,” said Cardinal Seán O’Malley in a statement. “Phil was a landmark voice of courage for survivors and played a significant role in uncovering the darkness of clergy sexual abuse in the life of the Church.”
O’Malley said the relentless advocacy of Saviano, whose personal story and precise documentation of perpetrator priests helped inform The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the abuse crisis, forced the church to reckon with its history of harming minors.
“Phil’s strident advocacy and his role in the investigative reporting of clergy abuse were important factors for the Church taking responsibility for the reprehensible harm inflicted on young people, to be held accountable for mandatory reporting to civil authorities, and to establish programs for awareness and prevention of abuse to children, young people and vulnerable adults,” O’Malley said.
O’Malley’s counterpart in the Worcester Diocese, Bishop Robert J. McManus, also marked Saviano’s passing in a separate statement Tuesday.
“As the family and friends of Phil Saviano gather to pray for the repose of his soul this week, I ask that all of us offer our prayers to God and remember him for his courage,” McManus said. “By not keeping silent about the abuse he endured from the former Father David Holley, he inspired other victims to come forward and find peace for themselves and justice for the harms that had been inflicted on innocent youth.”
Like O’Malley, McManus credited the efforts of Saviano and others for prompting the church to adopt reforms.
“Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Saviano and so many other victim survivors, the Catholic Church adopted policies to protect children and offer healing to past victims,” McManus said.
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,” 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.
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 convened a conference about clergy sex abuse.
“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.”
Material from prior Globe stories was used in this report.