BOSTON – Catholic Church sexual abuse survivors remember the legacy of an activist and whistleblower who played a pivotal role in uncovering decades of assault and cover-up.
Phil Saviano died at the age of 69 after battling gallbladder cancer.
The Roslindale resident died at his brother’s home in the small Douglas community, Massachusetts – where he was ill-treated as a young boy in the 1960s.
Saviano didn’t speak about the harassment in the Church of St. Denis until he was 40.
When he went public, he refused to accept any comparison that would have prevented him from talking about it.
His courage helped spark worrying allegations in Massachusetts, the United States, and around the world.
“We were all home alone, not knowing that we weren’t the only ones. Phil was one of the first voices to tell us we are not alone and that is priceless, ”said Ann Hagan Webb, Rhode Island SNAP representative.
In 1997, Saviano founded the New England Chapter of SNAP – the survivor network of people abused by priests.
He first told his story to the Boston Globe in the late 1990s and was a major source in the Globe’s investigation that uncovered dozens of priests molesting and getting away with children.
Saviano’s story was portrayed by actor Neal Huff in the 2015 Oscar-winning Spotlight.
“He was often on the set, talking to them and helping them see what was right and what was wrong,” explained Webb. “They adapted some of what they were filming to Phil.”
Saviano had lived with a range of health problems for years, including being diagnosed with HIV.
In 2009 he learned that he needed a kidney transplant and sought help from the Clergy Abuse Survivors Network.
Saviano received a kidney from a Minnesota woman who said she was sexually abused by a nun while she was in high school.
“For many, his courage was an inspiration. Phil was very special to so many people, ”said Terence McKiernan, President of BishopAccountability.org.
A number of health complications did not prevent Saviano from offering his assistance to others in his final days.
“In addition to being a famous person in the movement, Phil helped people cope with what was done to them as children,” McKiernan said. “What was difficult for him, he said to me, I still have so much to do.”
The abuse exposed through Saviano’s work prompted Cardinal Law, the most senior churchman in Boston, to resign. Globe coverage showed that Law was aware of priesthood child molesters but was hiding their crimes and unable to stop them instead of moving them from ward to ward without alerting parents or the police.
When the Archbishop died in Rome in 2017, Saviano asked bluntly: “How will he explain this when he faces his Creator?”
In 2019 in the Vatican for a summit on abuse prevention convened by Pope Francis Saviano said he told summit organizers to post the names of abusive priests around the world along with their case files.
“Do it to usher in 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 prevent these creeps from molesting any more children, ”he said.
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