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2021 Whistleblower of the Year Candidate - Phil Saviano

Posted  December 10, 2021

“He refuses to be silent.” That was the headline for the Boston Globe’s 1990s-piece reporting Phil Saviano had denied a settlement with confidentiality terms meant to prevent him from speaking out about the sexual abuse he endured in his youth. Thirty years after he was molested by a priest named Father Holley in Worcester, Massachusetts, Saviano became one of the first survivors to blow the whistle on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. As it turned out, going public with his own story was only the start of his journey as a whistleblower and advocate.

He kept refusing to be silent for the remainder of his years and would prove central to exposing systemic child abuse by Catholic clergy and the Church’s efforts to hide it. Mr. Saviano was the Globe’s key source for its 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning article series, later portrayed in the 2015 Academy Award-winning film Spotlight.

When Mr. Saviano first told the press the painful secret he’d kept for most of his life, he believed he was imminently dying of AIDS. Medical advances added decades to his life, and he spent them an unyielding champion for other victims and for the truth. Mr. Saviano passed away last month at 69.

After he refused the nondisclosure agreement, the diocese settled Mr. Saviano’s suit anyway, placing him among a small number of clergy abuse survivors who could speak freely about his settlement. Of his refusal to sign the gag clause, he recently recalled, “I said I’m not going to my grave with that secret,” the New York Times reported in Mr. Saviano’s obituary. “That would make me no better than the bishops.”

By the time his own suit settled, Mr. Saviano knew there were many other survivors. He first learned that he and his friends were not the only victims shortly before he brought his own action, when he read about a suit against Father Holley over abusing boys in another state. Through his own case, Mr. Saviano confirmed Father Holley was a repeat offender. He also discovered Church leadership in multiple states had known as much and allowed Father Holley to continue interacting with children, quietly sending him to treatment centers on numerous occasions. The Church’s response suggested the abuse went beyond Father Holley.

Mr. Saviano formed a support group to connect with other victims in 1997. He listened to their stories, compiled data, and amassed documents evidencing the extent of both the abuse and the Church’s coverup. But when he went back to the press in 1998, he faced skepticism.

It would be years before he finally met a receptive audience. When the Globe’s new editor launched an investigation into the Catholic Church’s sex abuse crisis, Mr. Saviano walked reporters through his evidence and his own personal story. He detailed how the Church had swept the mounting accounts of abuse under the rug, shuffling known offenders to different communities where they were allowed to abuse again, and silencing survivors with confidentiality agreements. “When Phil left, we were simmering with rage and determined to get to the bottom of what happened,” a Globe reporter told the New York Times.

Starting in 2002, the Globe Spotlight series broke the story and brought national attention to sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. By the end of the year, Boston’s Archbishop had resigned, but that was only the tip of the iceberg.

The Globe’s reporting led to extensive coverage of the issue in the United States and internationally and paved the way for sweeping changes in the Catholic Church. Over the next decade, the Roman Catholic Church investigated sex abuse cases implicating thousands of priests across the globe. And Mr. Saviano continued his fight for transparency, meeting with Vatican officials to discuss ways to end the culture of silence. In 2019, Pope Francis abolished secrecy rules that some Church officials hid behind to avoid cooperating with authorities in sex abuse cases, and prohibited insisting victims keep quiet.

With this nomination for 2021 Whistleblower of the Year, we pay tribute to Mr. Saviano’s memory, and honor his unwavering courage. He refused to stay silent about his own childhood abuse at the hands of a priest. He refused to stay silent about widespread sexual abuse by Catholic clergy. He refused to stay silent about the Church’s coverup that allowed the abuse to continue. We are all better for it.


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