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Survivor of clergy sex abuse, Phil Saviano, dies at 69

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A key figure in exposing the Roman Catholic Church's cover-up of clergy sex abuse has died. Phil Saviano was a survivor of that abuse and, decades later, went public with his experience. He was portrayed in the Oscar-winning movie "Spotlight." And in this scene, he speaks with a group of Boston Globe reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPOTLIGHT")

NEAL HUFF: (As Phil Saviano) When you're a poor kid from a poor family and when a priest pays attention to you, it's a big deal. How do you say no to God?

MARTINEZ: NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer was one of the investigative reporters on the Globe Spotlight team. She knew Phil and joins us now.

Sacha, what do we know about Phil Saviano's childhood experience? What did he do about it?

SACHA PFEIFFER, BYLINE: When Phil was 11, he was molested by a priest in Massachusetts. This was the 1960s. Now, we now know clergy sex abuse was tragically common. But back then, it was usually kept secret. The victim told no one, or they told their family and their family told no one, or their family complained to the church and were asked to keep quiet and sign a confidentiality agreement in return for a financial settlement.

When Phil told the church he'd been molested, he refused to sign a confidentiality clause, and that freed him to become a whistleblower. He went public, and that helped lay the groundwork for a gigantic scandal that ultimately brought down a cardinal and got Pope Francis to apologize.

MARTINEZ: Why did Phil decide to go public?

PFEIFFER: In the early 1990s, Phil was extremely sick with AIDS - close to dying - so he felt he had nothing to lose. And you have to remember - the Catholic Church used to be treated much more deferentially in this country. But Phil said if he was going to die, he might as well do some good on his way out. So he made it his mission to research clergy sex abuse. And he gave the Globe key material we needed to show that the church had been covering up this abuse for decades.

MARTINEZ: And, Sacha, you knew Phil. You interviewed him. You spent time with him. What was he like?

PFEIFFER: He was intense. He was relentless. He was determined to get someone to pay attention to what he'd found.

MARTINEZ: How would you describe Saviano's impact?

PFEIFFER: It was huge on an individual and an institutional level. Phil spent his final weeks at his brother's house. And that brother, Jim Saviano, told me he considers Phil a hero - you know, a hero for getting the church to reform how it deals with abusive priests and for encouraging other people who'd been molested to come forward. And Jim told me that Phil received an outpouring of gratitude in recent weeks.

JIM SAVIANO: I've been reading his emails, and he knew that. I would read them to him. And I mean, there were emails that said, you are the reason I'm alive. And you can't have more impact than that, I don't think.

MARTINEZ: And, Sacha, it sounds like Phil really did find a way to turn something really horrible and tragic into something positive.

PFEIFFER: Yes, he really did. He became a true activist and an effective advocate. He founded the New England chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. And by the way, A, he was on stage at the Oscars when the "Spotlight" movie won an Academy Award for Best Picture. He also became good friends with the actor who played him, Neal Huff. I called Neal yesterday, and here's part of what he said.

HUFF: Phil was truly one of the greats to walk the Earth in our time, I believe. So much of what happened in that movie would not have happened if Phil wasn't who he was.

PFEIFFER: Phil was 69 when he died yesterday of gallbladder cancer. And last night, one of his friends sent me a tribute book about him. And it begins with a message from Phil himself that I want to read part of. It says, dear friends, we have accomplished so much together. We have more justice where there was abuse. We have more dignity where there was shame. We have belief where there was denial. And he signs it with much love, Phil.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Sacha Pfeiffer. Sacha, thanks.

PFEIFFER: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF OLAFUR ARNALDS' "PARTIAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.