Abuse survivor who became outspoken advocate for other survivors dies at 69

DOUGLAS, Mass. (CNS) -- Phil Saviano, who was abused by a Catholic parish priest when he was a child in the 1970s and who as an adult in 2002 helped shed light on clergy sex abuse of minors in the Archdiocese of Boston, died Nov. 28. He was 69.

Saviano died at his brother's home in Douglas after a long battle with bladder cancer. His brother Jim Saviano was his caretaker in his final days.

Boston Cardinal Seán P. O'Malley in a Nov. 30 statement called him "a landmark voice of courage for survivors" who "played a significant role in uncovering the darkness of clergy sexual abuse in the life of the church."

"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," the cardinal said.

"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," Cardinal O'Malley said.

"We pray for the repose of Phil's soul, for the consolation of his family and loved ones, and give thanks for his witness to the truth," added the prelate, who is president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP, said in a statement the organization was "heartbroken at the loss of our dear friend. ... There are not enough words to describe this terrible loss for both our movement and the world."

Saviano was abused in the 1970s by his family's parish priest at St. Denis Catholic Church in Douglas. His story of abuse triggered the Boston Globe investigation that exposed Boston as the epicenter of a clergy sex abuse scandal that has affected the whole U.S. church. The scandal erupted in 2002 and the late Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned a year later amid allegations of mishandling clergy sex abuse cases.

Since 2002, however, the U.S. Catholic Church has taken many steps to bring abusers to justice, to prevent abuse and to heighten awareness of signs and symptoms of abuse.

Saviano's story figured prominently in a 2015 film appropriately titled "Spotlight." As he recounted in the movie and in numerous interviews, it was in December 1992 when he read a story in the Boston Globe about a Catholic priest, Father David A. Holley, being arrested for abusing boys in the 1970s at a church in New Mexico.

Later in an interview with the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, Saviano, then 40, said reading that story "was a life-changing moment. It was that day all the bells went off for me. I suddenly saw how naive I had been in assuming he had only done this to me."

Father Holley was his family's parish priest, a popular figure with children in the parish. He began sexually assaulting Saviano when he was 11 and continued this over an 18-month period.

"How do you say no to God?" Saviano's character says in "Spotlight."

After the Douglas parish, Father Holley served at churches in New Mexico, Texas and Colorado. In 1993 he was found guilty of assaulting boys in New Mexico and received a 275-year sentence. He died in prison in 2008.

Philip James Saviano was born in Douglas June 23, 1952. His father was an electrician and his mother was a homemaker.

He graduated from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst with a degree in zoology in 1975. He moved to Boston and earned a master's degree in communications from Boston University in 1980. He worked in public relations and fundraising and from 1982 to 1991 ran a concert production company.

Saviano founded SNAP's New England chapter and was a board member of BishopsAccountability.org.

"Phil was a true hero. He provided me and countless other survivors with a voice that has been heard worldwide," said Shaun Dougherty, president of SNAP's board of directors. "He not only blazed the trail for many, but he also took us all along with him as well. He shared credit like no other. He was gracious with his time. He was kind. He was intelligent. He will be greatly missed by many."

Said Zach Hiner, SNAP's executive director: "He exuded a warmth that I feel lucky to have experienced and I am grateful that Phil was there to share that warmth with so many survivors who he inspired, encouraged, and supported. We are honored to have known him."

When he first disclosed his abuse by the parish priest, Saviano and his parents, especially his father, had a major falling out, but they later reconciled. Saviano once said that because of the experiences he had with the church, he lost his religious faith and considered himself an agnostic.

Besides his brother Jim, he is survived by two other brothers.

A funeral for Saviano was scheduled for Dec. 3 at St. Denis Church in Douglas.

"My gift to the world was not being afraid to speak out," Saviano told The Associated Press in a brief telephone interview in mid-November.

SNAP in its statement said that his gift "helped tens of thousands of sexual abuse survivors gain the courage they needed to speak out for the first time.

"What Phil has given to victims and advocates is a purpose to take up the unfinished work and share the truth, to speak out about the injustice, and to help survivors heal," it said.