Phil Saviano, Survivor of Clerical Abuse Featured in ‘Spotlight,’ Dies at 69

Saviano’s funeral will be held Dec. 3 at his childhood parish.

Phil Saviano attends the ‘Spotlight’ New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on Oct. 27, 2015, in New York City.
Phil Saviano attends the ‘Spotlight’ New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on Oct. 27, 2015, in New York City. (photo: Debby Wong / Shutterstock)

Phil Saviano, a survivor of clerical sexual abuse whose story was featured in the 2015 film Spotlight died on Sunday, Nov. 28, at the age of 69. 

Saviano wrote in a Facebook post on Oct. 23 that doctors had informed him that they had exhausted all possible treatment options for his gallbladder cancer. He moved in with his brother, Jim Saviano, at his house in Douglas, Massachusetts, and began hospice care. 

His death was announced in another Facebook post shortly after 3pm on Sunday.

In December 1992, Saviano came across a news article in The Boston Globe saying that a priest named Father David Holley had been arrested for the sexual abuse of boys at a church in New Mexico during the 1970s. 

Saviano told People magazine in 2015 that discovering that article was a “big life-changing moment.”  

“I was very much surprised and just stunned,” he told the magazine. “It was just sort of a one-shot, fairly-short story in the Globe, not even in the front section. I could’ve easily missed it. But I didn’t.”

Starting as an 11-year-old child at St. Denis Catholic Church  in Douglas, Saviano was molested for one and a half years by Father Holley. Speaking in a video with the Daily Mail, he said that Father Holley was unlike other priests and had the ability to speak on the level of an adolescent boy. Saviano said that  the priest “took an interest in me” and initially had him do odd jobs around the rectory and parish after CCD class. 

“I remembered feeling lucky that this priest, who was so revered and respected in the community, was paying attention to me,” said Saviano to the Daily Mail. The funny stories shared by the priest quickly became sexual in nature; the behavior of the priest then progressed to assault. 

Motivated by the news report, Saviano came forward with the story of his abuse in 1992. At the time, having been diagnosed with AIDS, he did not think he had much longer to live. He figured that by coming forward with his story, he had nothing to lose. 

After filing a civil suit, Saviano was given access to Father Holley’s record. It was then he learned that there were “seven priests in four states” who were aware that the priest was a sexual abuser of minors. 

“I knew that the bishops were in on the cover-up,” he said to the Daily Mail. “I settled my case without signing a confidentiality agreement, which gave me the ability to talk about this.” 

Father Holley died in prison in 2008, 15 years into a 275-year sentence for the sexual assault of eight boys in New Mexico. 

After settling with the Diocese of Worcester in 1995, Saviano attempted to contact The Boston Globe three years later with his story. He was initially rebuffed, but, years later, the paper once again took an interest in his case. In January 2002, The Boston Globe published the first of its “Spotlight” team investigations into sexual abuse by Catholic priests and subsequent cover-up. 

Cardinal Bernard Law, the then-archbishop of Boston, resigned in the wake of the scandal. 

Saviano was portrayed in the Academy Award-winning movie Spotlight by Neal Huff. Saviano and Huff became friends throughout the course of filming, and Saviano advised writers on the screenplay. 

Actor Neal Huff (left) and Phil Saviano attend the "Spotlight" New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on October 27, 2015 in New York City. Shutterstock

Actor Neal Huff (left) and Phil Saviano attend the ‘Spotlight’ New York premiere at Ziegfeld Theatre on Oct. 27, 2015, in New York City. | Debby Wong/Shutterstock

In 1997, he founded the New England chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). 

In a statement released by SNAP, the organization said it was “heartbroken” at Saviano’s death and praised him as someone who “played an integral part in exposing sexual assaults against children by Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.” 

“There are not enough words to describe this terrible loss for both our movement and the world,” said SNAP. 

“Anyone who met Phil immediately recognized his gentleness and humility. He was a kind soul who helped provide a listening ear and shoulder to cry on as the founder of the New England SNAP chapter,” said the organization. “He embraced the principles of seeking truth and justice as the means to bring about healing for survivors at a time when the scandal was still in its infancy.”

Saviano’s funeral Mass will be held Dec. 3 at St. Denis, his childhood parish.

Pope Francis conferred on Catholics the lay ministries of catechist and lector at a Mass for the Sunday of the Word of God on Jan. 23.

Pope Francis: The Word of God Rekindles Hope

Pope Francis celebrated Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica for the fourth-annual Sunday of the Word of God, during which he, for the first time, formally conferred upon lay Catholics the ministries of lector and catechist.