When Susan Pavlak flew from Minnesota to Boston a decade ago to donate her kidney, she did not expect to meet the recipient. But a month before the surgery, she agreed to meet Phil Saviano for lunch, which was the first of many meals they shared as their friendship grew stronger over the years.
“He has my kidney, but that’s not why we’re friends. That’s just how we met,” Pavlak said during an interviewlast week in Saviano’s Roslindale home.
The two had something else in common other than organ donor and recipient: They are both survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
Saviano, 67, was a whistleblower on the sexual abuse crisis in Massachusetts and played a prominent role in the Globe’s Spotlight investigation, published in 2002.
In 1992, in an interview with the Globe, he told the public about the abuse he endured as a child in East Douglas. Saviano was repeatedly forced to masturbate and perform oral sex on a priest who turned out to be a serial pedophile and who died in prison.
Pavlak, 65, was molested for about four years by a former nun who became a teacher at her Catholic high school.
Reflecting on the trauma they have endured — beyond sexual abuse, Pavlak battled alcoholism decades ago and Saviano tested positive for HIV in 1984 — Saviano said, “Horrible things happen to people. But that doesn’t mean that horribleness should define a person.”
Their enduring friendship, filled with laughter, adventure, and a good dose of activism, shows that joy can be found on the other side.
“When you’ve been through rough times and then things are smooth sailing, you really appreciate it,” Saviano said.
“Amen,” Pavlak said. “What Phil and I have in common is that we are survivors with a capital S.”
Nearly every year, the two meet in either St. Paul or Boston. Saviano loves the raspberry bushes in Pavlak’s backyard, and Pavlak feasts on lobster when she visits Saviano. In between, they call every month and every week share articles, lately on politics and cooking.
“I would not have predicted this when I was out there looking for a kidney,” Saviano said of gaining a dear friend in Pavlak, whose sense of humor he cherishes.
They pack their reunions with kayaking, cooking, and outings to museums. Saviano bakes a delicious cheesecake, according to Pavlak.
A few years after the transplant, Saviano arranged for the two to meet a friend, the singer Judy Collins, backstage in Minneapolis. Pavlak was floored.
“That was the first record album I bought at 15 years old,” she recalled.
Both described meeting the other’s family as important milestones in their relationship.
Pavlak picked grapes from Saviano’s father’s backyard, visited his mother’s grave, and stood outside St. Denis Church, where Saviano had been molested as a child. Saviano grew close to Pavlak’s mother, a quiltmaker whose intricate designs he marveled at during his first visit. He has slept under one of her quilts for nearly a decade.
“It reminds me of Susan and her mom,” he said.
“He’s got a piece of my mom and me anyways,” Pavlak joked.
Saviano and Pavlak also consider teaming up on advocacy efforts fun.
“The driver for us getting together is the relationship. The secondary gain is to use our proximity to advance the causes we’re passionate about,” Pavlak said, noting that she learns a lot from her friend’s intelligence.
Last Monday, the 10th anniversary of the transplant, they met with the transplant medical team at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
At a Tuesday panel on clergy abuse, Saviano reflected on Pope Francis’s recent summit on the issue and Pavlak spoke about her organization, the Gilead Project, which has sought to gather survivors, offenders, and other members of the Catholic community to discuss healing and prevention.
Although both are committed advocates, they diverge in their approaches.
Pavlak is involved in her local parish, serves on the board that reviews abuse allegations at a monastery in Minnesota, and advocates for a “non-adversarial” response to the issue. She believes that change can and must also come from within the Church.
Now an agnostic, Saviano said he is less interested in preaching to bishops and cardinals and instead focuses his efforts on supporting survivors, encouraging them to speak publicly and name their abusers, and serving on the board of the BishopAccountability research organization.
“We have this abuse as a common denominator. She goes about it in a different way than I do,” Saviano said. “But our goals are quite similar.”
“When we’re together, it’s a more holistic view,” Pavlak added.
Still, when Saviano visits Pavlak, he accompanies her to Mass.
“She sings, and I don’t. She goes to communion, and I don’t. But I enjoy meeting her friends and other people in the parish,” Saviano said.
“He’s a respectful man,” Pavlak said.
“I go mostly for the social part,” Saviano said with a laugh.
When the two friends sit in the pew together, Pavlak said, it serves as a reminder to other churchgoing abuse survivors that they can thrive and survive “into old age, happy, and in great — well, good — physical shape.”
When Saviano’s kidney failure worsened in 2008, his nephrologist said he needed to go on dialysis or find a kidney donor. As an AIDS patient, he was advised against dialysis.
Unable to find a donor within his family, Saviano turned to members of the New England chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which he had established in 1997. After medical tests disqualified the five Massachusetts clergy abuse survivors who volunteered, SNAP sent a nationwide e-mail to more than 8,000 survivors that someone in the organization forwarded to Pavlak, who is not a SNAP member.
Pavlak said she sees it as part of her calling to help neighbors — even if it meant, in this case, giving an organ to a neighbor more than 1,000 miles away. The loss of friends to AIDS also compelled her to save Saviano’s life.
“Everything about my upbringing and faith tradition has taught me that when there is a need and you can address it, you should do that,” Pavlak said.
In 2009, many hospitals would not give kidney transplants to HIV/AIDS patients, but Beth Israel was participating in a clinical trial to test the outcomes of transplants in patients with HIV, said Dr. Martha Pavlakis, the hospital’s medical director of kidney and pancreatic transplantation and Saviano’s nephrologist.
She said only 3 percent of kidney transplants involve altruistic donors who do not know the recipent. And while the recipient may meet the donor to thank them, it’s unusual for the two to become friends, she said.
“Phil and Susan having the connection that they do is probably a reflection of their other shared circumstances,” Pavlakis said.
Invested in Saviano’s wellbeing, Pavlak gave him another set of sun-protective pants and a long-sleeve shirt on this visit. Organ transplant recipients have a higher risk of skin cancer, and he flies to Mexico a few times each year to buy folk art for his online business.
After Pavlak finished packing her suitcase Wednesday morning, the two stood in the doorway, singing Judy Collins lyrics to each other:
“Who knows how my love grows? Who knows where the time goes?”
Sarah Wu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @sarah_wu_.