As It Happens·Q&A

Phil Saviano, Catholic sex abuse whistleblower, remembered for having 'a spine of steel' 

Phil Saviano always said he came forward as a survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest because he was dying of AIDS and had nothing to lose. But his brother, Jim Saviano, doesn’t buy it. He says Phil spoke out because he wanted to protect children and hold the church accountable — and he would have done so regardless of his health.

Saviano, whose story inspired the film Spotlight, has died at the age of 69

Phil Saviano, a Boston survivor of Catholic clergy abuse and an activist, has died at the age of 69. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

Phil Saviano always said he came forward as a survivor of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest because he was dying of AIDS and had nothing to lose.

But his brother, Jim Saviano, doesn't buy it. He says Phil spoke out in the early 1990s because he wanted to protect children and hold the church accountable — and he would have done so regardless of his health.

Phil Saviano died on Sunday in his brother's home in Douglas, Mass., at the age of 69.

His advocacy led to the arrest and conviction of his abuser, Father David A. Holley, the resignation of Boston's archbishop Bernard Law in 2002, and church settlements with hundreds of victims.

Law, who later was appointed archpriest of a papal basilica in Rome, died in 2017Holley died in prison in 2008 while serving a 275-year sentence for molesting eight boys.

Saviano's story figured prominently in the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight about the Boston Globe's investigation into a massive sexual abuse coverup in the church. 

Jim Saviano spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about his brother. Here is part of their conversation. 

How many people were willing to even listen to him when he started to talk about, not just that priests were doing this ... but that they were being moved around [and it was] being covered up by the church itself?

I know that he tried to get other friends of his in Douglas who had been abused by this priest to come forward. And I know that their parents were angry about that. They wanted to hide it. They called my father and told him to tell his son not to bother their children.

I know that even years later, when he went to the Boston Globe the first time and, in summary, told them what he had found, they thought he was, you know, a conspiracist on the fringe.

So he was met with, I know, threats. He was met with admonishments. And he was not befriended. He might have been befriended by a few, but generally, he was shunned.

Watching your brother go through that struggle to be heard, what was it like for you?

He didn't open up to us until '92 or so. We knew nothing about his abuse. Maybe a close friend did, but the family knew nothing about it.

And when he opened up, I tried to be as supportive as I could, as did my brothers. But my father — [who was] getting calls from his friends, saying, you know, "What's going on? Keep your son away from my son" — reacted, as you would expect a second-generation Italian to act. And that is: "Why are you doing this? Just let sleeping dogs lie. Don't make a lot of noise. Let it go."

Phil Saviano, left, pictured with his brothers Jim, centre, and Victor, right. (Submitted by Jim Saviano)

And why did he not let it go? What gave him the courage that so few others had to talk about what had happened? 

What he said was, "I cannot allow this to go forward."

And he took it upon himself to do something ... to stop the abuse of children. That was the central issue that he focused on. And to do that, he had to take down the Church. And so he began his research.

When he saw that Holley had been pushed around from parish to parish, he figured out what was going on — that it wasn't just a local priest; that it was a hierarchy that was complicit.

If you knew my brother, he is just a wonderful, caring human being. And that's not because of what he's done. That's who he is. He has been that way his whole life. He's a beautiful, beautiful person.- Jim Saviano, brother of whistleblower Phil Saviano 

Your brother ... also had been diagnosed with AIDS at that point and didn't feel he had a lot of time, right?

He said, "The fact that I was dying gave me the courage to act."

I find that hard to believe, to tell you the truth, knowing my brother. Whether he had AIDS or not, when he saw that Holley had been moved and that it was continuing and that others were complicit, knowing my brother, he would have acted, whether he was on his deathbed or not.

So I'm, let me just say, ambivalent about that statement. If you knew my brother, he is just a wonderful, caring human being. And that's not because of what he's done. That's who he is. He has been that way his whole life. He's a beautiful, beautiful person.

And I would add brave and courageous, because he had so much resistance, even as you say, from some members of your family. Anyone who has seen the movie Spotlight knows that eventually, the Boston Globe listened to what Phil had to say. Not just what he had to say, what he had to show — he had documents. He had put things together. He had papers. He could show what was going on … and they dug deep and found out the true story, right?

That's true. And that all started when he realized that Holley had been pushed around and others were complicit. That was when he made a decision to do something. 

And my brother is a very intelligent person. He is one who does not hold anger. Through this whole five months of his going in the hospital, and going through multiple relapses, and discovery of other issues, and in hospice in my home for five weeks, I did not hear one complaint from him. Not one. In all the time, everything was "please" and "thank you," despite how bad things were going.

So it's no surprise to me what he did. He certainly had the courage. He showed me. I didn't know it at the time, didn't know it as he was growing up because there was never an opportunity to see it exhibited. But he showed me that he had tremendous courage and a spine of steel.

Phil Saviano, centre, who founded the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and inspired the film Spotlight, is applauded by the audience after being acknowledged by the makers of the film at the 31st Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica, Calif., on Feb. 27, 2016. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Because of his courage, the Massachusetts authorities eventually identified more than 1,000 children, who are now grown up, who had been sexually abused by hundreds of priests in the Boston Archdiocese over decades. And that the cardinal, the Archbishop of Boston, who had known there were problems and covered it up, was forced to resign. And that the Archdiocese has 500 lawsuits and $100 million [US] in damage claims. It's an extraordinary accomplishment for him. And did your father eventually come around to seeing the value?

Yes, he did. And it was well before then. My father never saw the film. He passed away almost 10 years ago.

There's no question … that he finally recognized the importance of what Phil was doing, and embraced it, embraced Phil, and sent him on his way with, "Give 'em hell."

What did it mean to Phil and to hear his father say and support him?

It was probably for Phil the most important validation of what he was doing to hear it from his father.

He did your family proud, didn't he?

I'll say.

I know you're planning a memorial for Phil. It is to be at the same church where he suffered the abuse. Why is that?

As he told me and others, two reasons. One, he wants to be buried in the cemetery with his family. And two, he wants to show the church that they have not knocked him down.

And I'm sure that message will be clear that he's the survivor. And the church hasn't survived yet, and won't until they make significant change.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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