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Photo courtesy of Phil Saviano /

Phil Saviano Shines 'Spotlight' on Clergy Abuse Epidemic

It was the winter of 1993, and Phil Saviano was scouring microfilm in Boston College’s O’Neill Library, feeding reel after reel into the reader, copying and printing articles that would prove especially useful in his investigation.

He began his search at the Boston Public Library, but BC’s extensive collection of Catholic publications and its copies of the Catholic directories proved to be the most revealing, both for Saviano’s research and later, for the investigations of The Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ team.

“If the people who run this library knew what I was looking for,” he says, “they wouldn’t approve and they’d probably ban me from the library.”

Photo courtesy of Phil Saviano /

Photo courtesy of Phil Saviano /

Saviano’s eyes were scanning indexes that listed hundreds, thousands of articles, looking for a few key words: clergy abuse, sex abuse—the phrasing varied, but the story was the same. Priests in parishes across the country were abusing children with remarkable frequency. The mystery to Saviano was, “How could this be and why wasn’t anybody doing anything about it?”

“I was investigating, and trying to sort things out and get to the bottom of what I thought was a really big story,” he says. “It was as if I was one of those Spotlight team reporters.”

The back and forth rapport between Saviano’s own probing and that of The Boston Globe began when Saviano saw an article published in the paper on December 17, 1992—just a month before he began researching at Boston College—which reported that former Massachusetts priest David Holley had been arrested in New Mexico on charges of child molestation.

Before his relocation to New Mexico, Holley also victimized 11 year-old Saviano. And now, nearly 30 years later, Saviano was finally putting the pieces together. “I always remembered my abuse, but I thought Father Holley was just an individual,” he says. “It never occurred to me that there were a lot of priests doing the same thing.”

The Holley arrest and the conviction of Massachusetts priest James Porter for the molestation of 28 children led Saviano to the conclusion that this was a far greater problem than most people could ever conceptualize. “Within five days [of reading the article] my own story was on the front page of The Boston Globe,” he says. “I just dove in, and not really having an understanding of what I was getting involved with.”

But for Saviano, the story really began when he met Holley in the sixties. Saviano wasn’t an alter boy. He was Holley’s paperboy, and without Holley having to pursue him, Saviano dutifully showed up at his house daily. “He must have thought I was a gift from heaven,” says Saviano, “because six days a week I just showed up on his back doorstep.”

When Saviano recounts the events that followed, he does so from a rather detached, flyover view. It’s Saviano’s history, but at the same time it’s a narrative that belongs to many victims of clergy abuse.

First there’s grooming—a term Saviano uses as a way to educate the general public of how these kinds of abuses come about. Grooming, as Saviano explains it, is “a gradual sort of reeling [the child] in,” which can include “the priest becoming friendly with the child’s parents, or the priest just becoming more and more friendly with the child—asking the child about his family or his school life.”

And when the priest starts paying extra attention to a child, “You feel special,” says Saviano. “At that age, you have no concept of where it’s going, or that someone in that position could be taking advantage of you, or not have your best interest at heart.”

Furthermore, it was almost preposterous to anticipate such an act of malice coming from a priest—a figure that was held in exceptionally high esteem by families and communities in the 1960s.

Even when the assaults were happening, when Holley was forcing Saviano to perform oral sex on him, Saviano was paralyzed by the authority; he didn’t know how to say no. “I was never able to bring myself to yell at this priest, or to hit him, or kick him or go screaming out of the church,” he says, “because all I could think of was, this guy is so powerful from a spiritual point of view … I was programmed to behave in a subservient way.”

For this reason, Saviano explains, sexual assault by a priest is distinct from crimes perpetrated by a teacher, an athletic coach, or a classmate. Not only was there senior authority, there was the matter of salvation, of whether or not saying no was a sin. In the film Spotlight, Neal Huff—who plays Saviano—asks, “How do you say no to God?” For real-life Saviano, “that was really true.”

All Saviano could do was wait—wait for the physical abuse to miraculously come to an end. And it did, when Holley was relocated to New Mexico. The mental residue of the experience, however, would remain much longer. Saviano reflects, “It’s very hard for a young child to look at [a priest] and see that what’s coming down the pike is going to be a lot of very bad stuff.”

At first, the assault was followed by an overwhelming sense of betrayal, one that Saviano believes is common to all victims of sexual assault—whether they be college-age females, or young children. He wondered how he had so badly misjudged this person—someone who, it turned out, “could care less what was going on with me.” Saviano says, “This was my first experience in feeling that somebody I trusted had really taken advantage of me.”

The paranoia that comes with constantly wondering who can be trusted, “who’s a good guy, and who’s a bad guy,” can bleed into many of facets of an abuse survivor’s life well beyond childhood. As they get older, they struggle with trusting authority figures, like bosses at work, or venturing into the dating scene.

It was in his third year of college that Saviano first recognized that he was gay, so he started going to gay bars to meet men. But when he was at the bars, or when he found himself growing attached to a man he had befriended, he was shadowed by a persistent “sense that something horrible was going to happen,” he says. “And it wasn’t rational, but it was very definitely there, and very hard for me to deal with.”

In retrospect, the roots of this irrational fear are plain to see. But at the time, Saviano didn’t have a clue where they were coming from. “I didn’t realize these issues I was having were related to my childhood abuse until I was much, much older,” he says.

Time gave Saviano a clarified understanding of what had taken place in his childhood, but something much more sinister would ultimately compel him to reveal his past abuse well into his adult years.

AIDS stole from Saviano everything a ‘typical’ 40-year-old man would expect to have in his life: he was gay, critically ill, boyfriend-less, jobless, and utterly broke. He was certain his life was over, both figuratively and quite literally.

His previous qualms about ruining his reputation, or the reputation of a company he represented in his public relations career, abruptly became trivial. Yet the feeling that there was nothing left to lose was not synonymous with hopelessness for Saviano. Counterintuitively, “It put me in a position where I could go public and launch this issue,” he says. “AIDS freed me up to find the courage to come out with my story.”

And like that, he was off. Racing through volumes of Catholic directories at the Boston College library, founding a New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), and waving The Boston Globe over to perhaps the most impactful and notorious investigation in the paper’s history.

And most recently, the film Spotlight, he says, has “spun [him] into an entirely new orbit.” The project burst over the horizon at just the moment when Saviano was beginning to think, “Well, it is over.”

Spotlight lifted Saviano’s story out of the damning, yet minuscule black-and-white newsprint, and projected it before mainstream America, larger than life.

Phil Saviano and Neal Huff: Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Phil Saviano and Actor Neal Huff: Photo courtesy of Tumblr

Though the film’s plot focuses primarily on the Globe reporters’ dogged investigation of clergy abuse in Boston, Saviano’s input was integral to shaping the Phil Saviano character, as well as dialogue about the abuse survivor experience. When Josh Singer, the co-screenplay writer, sent him a copy of the script, asking Saviano for his objections, for anything that needed clarification or anything that was being omitted, Saviano sent back four, single-spaced pages of notes. “I was thinking, ‘Oh boy, he’s going to regret letting me in on this,’” says Saviano with a laugh.

One reservation that critics of the movie have expressed is that the victims’ stories are woven into a plot dominated by the journalistic process—not the survivor experience. But as Saviano sees it, the filmmakers were wise in focusing on the reporters and the investigation itself. “I think if it was focused strictly on victims it would not have had such a wide audience, and ultimately what we want is to reach a lot of people,” he says. “It’s almost as if we squeezed that truth in on the back of a movie about journalism investigations.”

Even if the Phil Saviano character is marginal to Mark Ruffalo playing Globe reporter Mike Rezendes, the survivor thread that runs throughout Spotlight has been hugely impactful in leading the way for other victims to bring their stories into the light. “The victims’ stories are still coming out, and people are starting to want to know more,” says Saviano. “Ultimately, it has worked out for the better.”

Beyond the acclaim the film has received in the United States thus far—it received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture—Spotlight and the Phil Saviano story is finding its place in the international conscience as well. It’s currently playing in Chile, where Saviano says a sizable survivor community is surfacing.

Spotlight even enjoyed a moment in the limelight at the Vatican, where a screening of the movie took place the very night of this interview. The head of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal O’Malley, enthusiastically gave his approval for the screening, with Saviano involved in the event’s organization: “I have to say that that’s certainly a sign of progress,” says Saviano.

The Pontifical Commission—a diverse group that consists of molestation survivors, psychologists, Vatican officials, and laypeople—is charged with establishing rules and regulations that can be applied worldwide to stem the abuse of children by priests.

The Commission’s most notable undertaking has been to establish a Vatican tribunal for bishops who fail to protect children from sexual abuse by priests—another group of officials that will theoretically work to reduce the instances of sexual abuse by priests worldwide. The problem, Saviano says, is “they’ve talked about it, it exists supposedly, but no one yet knows how it is going to work exactly.” Still to be determined are what the consequences will be for infractions, and how exactly bishops will be held accountable.

Saviano credits Pope Francis with promoting conversation about the issue and beginning to generate a solution, but “so far his talk has not translated into any sort of action,” Saviano says.

In the past, when a priest was reported to a bishop, instead of removing the perpetrator from the priesthood or from further contact with children, a bishop would simply relocate the offending priest to a town or state where his previous reputation was unknown. This had the effect of perpetuating the problem instead of uprooting it.

“If you have a priest that molests a child, he affects one or two children by the time the bishop finds out,” says Saviano. “If the bishop takes action and removes him from the priesthood and reports him to civil authorities, then effectively [the bishop] has put a stop to it.”

A key, then, to the future success of both the Pontifical Commission and the Vatican tribunal for bishops will be how much urgency bishops feel to report perpetrators within the Church to the police, and how well they resist the urge to sweep malignant priests under the rug.

“For some strange reason, they never got the concept that it was criminal behavior,” says Saviano. “They always thought it was sinful behavior and that sins could be addressed through prayer and repentance.”

But beneath the sexual abuse, the cover-ups and the relocations, there still lies one contributor to the clergy abuse epidemic that the Pontifical Commission is unlikely to discuss. It’s an element so fundamental to the identity of a priest that only a most daring critic of the Church would decry it.

That cause is celibacy.

“It creates an environment where there are a lot of secrets,” says Saviano, “and a lot of those secrets are about sex.” According to Saviano, it goes something like this: A priest who has a girlfriend on the side (a relationship that is very normal, aside from the fact that it breaks the celibacy requirement) is found out by a fellow priest—one who turns out to be a child molester. The first priest tells the perpetrator he’s going to turn him in. The perpetrator counters with a threat to turn in the priest who has a girlfriend.

Now, they find themselves in a sort of priestly prisoner’s dilemma. “There’s an incentive for both of these people to keep their mouths shut,” says Saviano, “and it’s really unnecessary from my point of view.”

Furthermore, “It’s very hard for anybody to lead a celibate life, not to mention it’s a little unhealthy,” he says with a laugh, taking up a lighter tone.

But all in all, the number of children being abused is on the decline. And the number of people exposed to Spotlight and to Phil Saviano’s story is ever-expanding, from the offices of The Boston Globe to the Coolidge Corner Theater, to Los Angeles, Chile, and now the Vatican.

“There’s a lot that needs to be changed within the Church,” concludes Saviano. And while he’s no longer a practicing Catholic, Saviano has dedicated his life to enacting that desperately needed change.

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