Phil Saviano, key advocate for survivors of sex abuse by Catholic clergy, had died at 69

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Phil Saviano
Phil Saviano Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images

Phil Saviano, a longtime advocate for victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and a key source for The Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize–winning reports on church coverups, died Sunday at his brother's home in Douglas, Massachusetts. He was 69. Saviano had revealed in October that doctors could no longer treat his gallbladder cancer and he was starting hospice care.

Saviano was 40 when he first went public with his sexual abuse, at age 11, by the parish priest at St. Denis Church in East Douglas. He had read in the newspaper that his abuser, former priest David Holley, was convicted of molesting eight boys in New Mexico, and his recounting of his own abuse to the Globe in 1992 made him one of the first survivors to come forward. Holley died in prison in 2008 while serving a 275-year sentence.

In 1991, Saviano became very ill with AIDS. "If I had not been dying of AIDS, I would not have had the courage to come forward," he told the Globe in 2009. Saviano also said he believes the Worcester diocese agreed to a financial settlement in 1995 without a confidentiality agreement only because nobody expected him to live.

But a new HIV/AIDS treatment restored Saviano's health, he founded the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) in 1997, and brought his research on abuser priests to the Globe in 1998. The Globe passed at the time, but in 2002, a Globe Spotlight team took up the story and shook the Catholic Church, prompting the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and, within a few years, transforming how the U.S. Catholic Church handles cases of sexual abuse.

Saviano was portrayed by actor Neal Huff in the 2015 film Spotlight, and in 2019, he attended a Vatican summit on sexual abuse convened by Pope Francis. "My gift to the world was not being afraid to speak out," Saviano told The Associated Press in a brief mid-November telephone interview.

Saviano got a degree in zoology and then a master's in communications, and he worked in public relations for a Boston hospital before switching to entertainment, running a concert production company from 1982 to 1991.

A self-described "recovering Catholic," Saviano said he lost his religious faith and considered himself agnostic. He is survived by three brothers, AP reports. "A funeral Mass was scheduled for Friday at St. Denis Church in East Douglas."

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