HARTFORD COURANT | March 26, 2002
By Susan Campbell
Phil Saviano was an 11-year old in love with fishing and treehouses and the whole outdoors.
He was also a paperboy, and the rectory of his Catholic parish, St. Denis Church in East Douglas, Mass., was on his route. The priest there, the Rev. David Holley, was on his second assignment in a career that would take him to New Mexico and Colorado, where he would prey on more little boys. Saviano found this out later. No one said it was “preying” then; no one said “sexual predator” either in relation to Holley. A priest was an emissary of God. Father asks you to do something, you, by God, do it. Father asks you to do something you’re pretty sure is wrong (and you’re 11), you, by God, do it anyway because it’s Father, and he (He) knows best.
But then, if you’re like Saviano, later you confusedly confess that act. You sit and cross yourself and list the lies and the naughty words you said in the past week, and then you say, “and you know the rest,” because it’s Father on the other side of the screen, and he more than any one knows “the rest,” the masturbation, the oral sex, his big hands gripping your skinny wrists when you try to run.
Holley never commented on “the rest.” Instead, he became more brazen.
Once he called down from his second-story window to Saviano, who was passing on the street. Saviano looked up and realized that Holley was standing in the window masturbating. Saviano said he once saw Holley forcing sex on another boy in front of the church altar.
Whom do you tell when even God seems to turn a deaf ear? Saviano never told his family. He feared he would be blamed. He was already telling the church, in his confession, and still nothing changed until a year later, when Holley was moved out west.
In 1985 in Toledo, when Barbara Blaine went public with her own story of clergy abuse, church officials insisted hers was the first time they had heard of sexual abuse. They lied. Four years later, Blaine started Survivors Network of thoseAbused by Priests — SNAP, for short. These days, with parish after parish and bishop after bishop issuing statements decrying the breach of faith committed by pedophile priests, she knows why she started it. Victims of clergy abuse are calling SNAP in record numbers, and finally, it looks like someone’s listening.
Saviano told his story, too, to the Boston Globe. He filed suit and settled on $12,500 — of which his take, after legal bills, was $5,400.
How do you buy back a childhood? Certainly not with $5,400. But Saviano insists it was a victory.
Unlike so many others who settled with the church, he did not sign a gag order. He can continue to tell his story, only this time someone’s listening.
“It seems as though a corner’s been turned,” Blaine said. “There are not actually prosecutors and state’s attorneys involved.” And that’s important. Blaine says 2,000 priests have molested kids, but only two dozen or so have been convicted.
Meanwhile, Saviano, who runs the Boston-area chapter of SNAP, keeps talking. He’s on MSNBC, back in the Boston Globe, fielding calls from all over the country, and in between he takes a poignant call from another survivor who’s finally worked up the nerve to call.
In February, on Saviano’s father’s 83rd birthday, he finally told him he was proud of him. “All those years ago,” Saviano’s father said, “You were right. Give them hell.” After all these years, Saviano was surprised at how much that meant to him.
Today, Saviano says he’s an uncomfortable agnostic.
“I find myself envious sometimes of people who do have a strong faith,” he said. “And I don’t know what that’s like. There are days when I can’t do this on my own.”
But he does. From the ashes, then, this is a story of faith, of people like Saviano who were willing, early on, to talk about the worst days of their lives, people who went against family and God — or so they were told — to tell the truth. And because they loved truth enough to risk all, now more people can come forward in this morass and mess of clergy abuse.
God bless them.
Staff Writer Susan Campbell is at [email protected]