2002 | Abuse Victim Challenges Church

In Print Media by PhilSaviano

THE TIMES (United Kingdom) | March 26, 2002
By Katty Kay

Phil Saviano was 11 when the local catholic priest first pulled him into the Church sacristy, showed him a pornographic magazine and demanded sexual favours.

The abuse continued for two years and now Mr. Saviano is trying to encourage others who endured similar ordeals to go public with their stories.

Since January, 55 priests in 17 diocese across America have been suspended in cases of sexual abuse in a scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church.

Last week the Pope condemned abuse as a “grievous sin” after John Geoghan, a Boston priest, was sentenced in January to ten years in prison after being accused of molesting more than 130 people. On Palm Sunday many American priests apologised for the scandal in their sermons.

Phil Saviano grew up near Boston in a religious Italian Catholic family and Father David Holley was his charismatic, popular priest with a secret penchant for young boys.

“I remember occasions in the sacristy, in the Church basement, on the stairs to the basement, in the rectory. I remember trying to get away, saying I had to leave, and him grabbing my wrist and pulling me back,” Mr. Saviano said.

He was not alone. Father Holley abused other children too and when parishioners complained the local bishop simply moved him on to another parish or another state. In one three-year period in New Mexico, Father Holley was alleged to have molested more than 30 children.

Mr. Saviano is now 49 and lives alone in Boston. Years of therapy, he said softly, had helped to dispel some of his anger. But what upsets him most is the Church’s cover up of Father Holley’s activities.

“Four Bishops in four states knew what Father Holley was doing…To me that’s unconscionable.”

Because of the priest’s position and influence in the community, the young boy found it impossible to defy Father Holley’s instructions to keep their “games” a secret. He did not tell his family about the abuse until he was 40.

“We were taught that the priest was God’s representative on earth, we were taught to obey him…He had absolute power over me,” Mr. Saviano said. “If it had been the mailman I could have said ‘No way, get your hands off me’.”

And, since he was Catholic, Father Holley’s position meant another helpline cut. “My abuser was my confessor,” Mr. Saviano said.

Stories like this have prompted some changes in the Catholic Church. Archdioceses throughout the country have been forced to hand over records of allegations to public prosecutors. In Boston 80 priests are being investigated.

Last week’s edition of the city’s Catholic newspaper, The Pilot, even questioned whether the centuries-old discipline of priestly celibacy was a contributing factor in child abuse.

But at a recent debate at Harvard University there were signs that the church would still prefer to gloss over the scandal by splitting hairs on the definition of paedophilia.

“Those may be priests who have molested somebody who is 17, 18 or 16 years of age…now that doesn’t make it right…but would you call that a paedophile crisis? No,” Ray Flynn, a former US ambassador to the Vatican, said.

Mr. Flynn’s comments caused an outcry from the audience and confirmed the fears of those who believe the Church is still protecting clergy’s careers at the expense of children’s welfare.

“I’ve absolutely no enthusiasm for the very old-fashioned approach to the church in these matters that says ‘Well let’s not cause a scandal, let’s settle this among ourselves’. The time for that has emphatically past,” said Terry McKiernan who described himself as a Catholic dedicated to reforming the Church he loves.

On Good Friday Mr. McKiernan will lead a prayer protest in which he and more than 100 other angry Catholics will circle Boston’s Holy Cross cathedral to demand full disclosure on all priests accused of molesting children.

Father Holley was moved from Massachusetts to New Mexico to Texas and to Colorado. He abused children in each state and in 1993 he was eventually arrested and sentenced 275 years in prison.

But for Phil Saviano the current promises of reform come too late. “I have no faith,” he said. “I was forced at too young an age to make those difficult emotional decisions”