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Remembering Phil Saviano, survivor of clergy abuse who refused to stay silent

Phil Saviano in 2020.
Andrew Medichini
Associated Press
Phil Saviano in 2020.

An outspoken victim of clergy sexual abuse — who supported and inspired other survivors in western Massachusetts and across the country — died of gall bladder cancer on Sunday.

People are remembering Phil Saviano as low-key, but tough.

That's how he was portrayed in the 2015 film "Spotlight," which told the story of the Boston Globe investigative team. Their reporting, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, brought to light details of decades of sexual abuse by priests covered up by the church.

In one scene, Saviano, played by the actor Neal Huff, has carried a cardboard box filled with his research on abuse to a meeting with Globe reporters.

“You guys got to understand, this is big. This is not just Boston. It's the whole country. It's the whole world, and it goes right up the Vatican,” said Saviano in the film.

“Do you have any proof of that, Phil?” asked reporter Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo.

“No, not yet, but think about it. There are so many of them. How could they have hidden it for so long?” said Saviano.

“So many what?” asked the reporter.

“Priests. Priests. I know of 13 right here in Boston,” said Saviano in the film.


As a child, Saviano was sexually assaulted by his parish priest in the 1960s in Douglas, Massachusetts. He first spoke to the media about it in 1992. He refused to accept money from the church that would prevent him from telling his story.

According to his website, in 1996 Saviano settled a case with Diocese of Worcester that had no restrictions on speaking freely. A year later, he founded the New England chapter of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

In 2005, WFCR's Bob Paquette interviewed Saviano when he was speaking at the UMass Amherst.

Olan Horne is a survivor from Chester who said he was abused at St. Michael's Church in Lowell. Horne said Saviano was a mentor and a dear friend, who inspired other survivors to take care of themselves.

“Phil had a sense of self, and a very sense of calm that a lot of us didn't. A lot of us were very enraged," said Horne. "Phil had this quiet sort of strength that was also a big beacon of safety for us — a lot of us, I believe. It was for me.”


Phil's older brother, Jim Saviano, said that in addition to surviving abuse, Phil faced multiple health problems: AIDS, kidney failure, heart problems, a stroke, gall bladder cancer. Throughout it all, Jim Saviano said, his brother was driven to prevent more abuse.

“The way he has taken on this battle with trying to save the innocent of young children was extraordinarily taxing — painful because he did not receive a lot of support, to say the least. There were threats against him,” Jim Saviano said.

And yet his brother said he was very resilient and tried to help other survivors find a positive path. Phil Saviano talked about that two years ago in a film by the Gilead Project about restorative justice in clergy abuse.

“And the message that I have to a lot of survivors who are struggling is that it is possible to get past the struggle," Saviano said in the film. "And to get to the point in life when you can feel joy. You can make contributions to society. You can find happiness, and you can become whole — despite the hole that might have been created in you as a child by being abused by a priest."


Jim Saviano said Phil wanted to have his memorial service held at the same church where he was abused as a child.

“It was his intention to deliver a message to the Catholic Church that despite trying, they have not knocked him down,” Jim Saviano said.

Phil Saviano's funeral Mass will be held this Friday at St. Denis Church in Douglas, Massachusetts.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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