Friends remember legacy of Catholic Sex Abuse Whistleblower & ‘Spotlight’ source

BOSTON — Survivors of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church are remembering the legacy of an activist and whistleblower who played a pivotal role in exposing decades of assaults and cover-ups.

Phil Saviano died at the age of 69 after a battle with gallbladder cancer.

The resident of Roslindale passed away at his brother’s home in the small Massachusetts community of Douglas – where he endured abuse as a young boy in the 1960s.

Saviano didn’t talk about the molestation at St. Denis Church until he was 40-years-old.

Once he went public, he refused to accept a settlement that would have prevented him from speaking about it.

His courage helped set off troubling accusations across Massachusetts, the United States, and around the world.

“All of us were alone at home, not knowing that we weren’t the only one. Phil was one of those first voices who told us we weren’t alone, and that’s priceless,” said Ann Hagan Webb, Rhode Island SNAP representative.

Saviano founded the New England Chapter of SNAP – the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests – in 1997.

He first told his story to the Boston Globe in the late 90s and was a key source in the Globe’s investigation that exposed how scores of priests molested children and got away with it.

Saviano’s story was portrayed by actor Neal Huff in the 2015 Oscar-winning film “Spotlight”.

“He was there often on the set, talking to them and helping them see what was right and what was wrong about what they were doing,” explained Webb. “They adjusted some of what they were filming according to what Phil said.”

Saviano had lived for years with a number of health issues that included an HIV diagnosis.

He learned he needed a kidney transplant in 2009 and asked for help from the network of survivors of clergy abuse.

Saviano received a kidney from a Minnesota woman who said she had been sexually abused during her high school years by a nun.

“For a lot of people, his courage was an inspiration. Phil was very, very special to so many people,” said Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org.

A series of health complications did not stop Saviano from offering his support to others through his final days.

“Phil was not only a famous person in the movement but he was one on one helping people cope with what had been done to them as children,” said McKiernan. “What was hard for him, he said to me, I have so much more to do.”

The abuse that came to light as a result of Saviano’s work prompted Cardinal Law, Boston’s highest-ranking churchman, to step down. The Globe’s reporting showed Law was aware of child molesters in the priesthood but covered up their crimes and failed to stop them, instead of transferring them from parish to parish without alerting parents or police.

When the archbishop died in Rome in 2017, Saviano asked bluntly: “How is he going to explain this when he comes face to face with his maker?”

In 2019, at the Vatican for an abuse prevention summit called convened by Pope Francis, Saviano said he told summit organizers to release the names of abusive priests around the world along with their case files.

“Do it to launch 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 help prevent these creeps from abusing any more children,” he said.