He no longer belongs to any sort of organized religion, but Phil Saviano, whose pivotal role in exposing the child sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church is showcased in the Oscar-nominated film Spotlight, appears to have had something almost like divine intervention on his side.
For instance, if he hadn’t been flipping through The Boston Globe looking for last minute Christmas presents in December of 1992, he might have never stumbled across a report that the priest who raped him as a child was arrested for doing the same thing to two boys in New Mexico.
“That was my big life-changing moment because I was very much surprised and just stunned,” Saviano, 63, tells PEOPLE. “It was just sort of a one shot, fairly short story in the Globe, not even in the front section, I could’ve easily missed it. But I didn’t.”
The news of his abuser’s arrest could not have come at a more pivotal point in his life. At the time, Saviano had been diagnosed with AIDS and was not given long to live. But living so close to the edge of death finally gave him the courage to speak out about his abuse.
“The truth of the matter is that AIDS freed me up to do some things that I might not have had the courage otherwise to do, and going public about my abuse at the age of 40 is one of them,” he admits.
And if it weren’t for his seemingly fatal illness, Saviano believes the church would never have allowed him to take his settlement money – a measly $15,500 – without signing their customary nondisclosure agreement.
“I became the first person that I know of to settle one of these sex abuse lawsuits and maintain my ability to talk about the case and what my experiences were,” Saviano says, explaining, “I think the only reason they agreed to forgo the NDA is because they figured I wasn’t going to be around much longer to talk anyway.”
But he survived. Not long after doctors advised him to prepare his will and buy his burial plot, Saviano was introduced to new medication and began to recover.
“The next year I decided to formalize my outreach to other survivors and I contacted S.N.A.P. (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) out in Chicago and I asked them if I could open up a New England chapter. We had our first meeting in May of 1997.”
Over the next several years, Saviano met with other survivors and began compiling information and statistics on abuse. After uncovering dozens of active pedophile priests in the Boston area, and unearthing evidence of a larger cover-up scandal at the highest levels, he turned to the press for help breaking the news.
“I had approached the Globe years ago and they weren’t too interested in what I had to say in 1998,” Saviano says. “My big gripe with them was that they were very willing to write about what a particular priest did but they were very reluctant to take it to the next level, and ask what the bishops knew and ask why the priests moved from one place to another.”
In 2001, the Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team finally began asking the right questions and brought Saviano into their offices for an interview. The scene depicted in the film – which he says “is just a snippet” of what was actually a three-hour long conversation – became the turning point in their investigation. With help from Saviano’s research, Spotlight was able to confirm 13 abusive priests, and eventually proved a much larger cover-up within the Church.
When the report hit stands in 2002, the news shook the world, and after years of being called crazy – at first even by members of Spotlight – Saviano and hundreds of his fellow survivors finally received their vindication. Even if statutes of limitation made prosecuting every priest impossible, the world finally knew the truth.
The Spotlight team discovered that more than 70 priests in Boston had molested children over decades (the number would eventually reach almost 250). Furthermore, they were able to prove the archdiocese covered up their crimes by reassigning priests and making secret settlements with victims. Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston, resigned in late 2002.
Thirteen years later, Spotlight the film is nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and has brought the scandal back into the public eye. Michael Keaton stars as Spotlight leader Walter “Robbie” Robinson and Neal Huff portrays Saviano.
Recognizing Saviano’s crucial role in the case, Spotlight reporter Mike Rezendes (played by Mark Ruffalo) recommended screenwriter Josh Singer meet with Saviano during the writing process. After hearing his story over a 3-hour dinner in Boston, Singer sent Saviano the script and asked for his notes. He replied with a three-page list of suggestions, some of which, like the concept of grooming, made it into the final script.
“I wanted them explain the process of grooming – a priest doesn’t just zero in on a kid and then all of sudden he’s moving in for the assault. Really it’s a long process, in which the priest will sort of ingratiate himself to the child or to the child’s family.”
It’s a predatory stratagem Saviano remembers well. “I was a good target because there were some problems in my family and my mother was very sick, she had a bad case of rheumatoid arthritis and it caused a lot of tension within the family,” he remembers.
Saviano has now seen the film six times, and was only able to hold back his tears during the most recent screening. “I feel immensely grateful, although I don’t know who to direct my gratitude towards, that I lived long enough to see such a fantastic thing happen,” he says.
“Just the fact that the film is made, never mind that it’s gotten great reviews, and that these fantastic actors have wanted to be a part of it, just the fact that the film is out there is so important and so validating to survivors.”
For Saviano, making a movie about the scandal is almost “an extension of what survivors do when they come forward.” He explains, “I think the main reason why we go public, all of us, is so we can see this issue dealt with properly, so others don’t have to undergo the same horrible experiences we went through when we were kids. And that’s another thing that this movie is helping to accomplish. It gets the word out, it gets the discussions going, and ultimately it can only serve to further put a stop to these instances of child abuse.”
While Saviano has dialed back his involvement in S.N.A.P. over the years, he’s recently compiled a collection of news reports and interviews pertaining to the scandal on a personal website he recently launched. He continues to live in Boston and enjoys working on another passion project: bringing Mexican folk-art to the world on his other website, Viva Oaxaca Folk Art.