Phil Saviano is a victim of child sexual abuse by a Massachusetts Catholic priest in the 1960s. In 1992, at the age of 40, he went public about his abuse, generating national headlines. Through the pursuit of a civil suit, he gained evidence that least 7 bishops in four states had known that his abuser, Fr. David Holley, was a child molester. After settling his lawsuit with no confidentiality restrictions, he established the New England Chapter of SNAP, the national support network. Through SNAP, he formalized his outreach to other victims of child clergy abuse and assumed a role of expert and media spokesperson on the issue. Phil’s year 2001 contributions to the Boston Globe’s landmark investigation of clergy abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, MA are portrayed in the movie “Spotlight,” the Academy Award Winning Best Film of 2016.
Mike Rezendes is a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight Team and shared a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for revealing the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In more than two decades with the Globe, he has investigated a wide array of additional subjects, including the September 11 attacks, health care costs, and prison suicides. While working with the Spotlight Team, Mike was also a Pulitzer Prize finalist twice, once in 2007 for an investigation of the debt collection industry, and again in 2017 for an exposé of the mental health care system in Massachusetts.
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Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: In the Spotlight
Download the transcription below: SpotlightonTheCatholicChurchandSexualAbuse
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KRISTIN: Hey everyone, this is Kristin Sunanta Walker, host of Mental Health News Radio.
SHARI: Thanks for having me back.
KRISTIN: Let’s tell everyone real quickly where you are at today. You’re in your car at what trial?
SHARI: So I’m sitting in my car at the Cosby trial – probably a life altering experience for many people.
KRISTIN: Absolutely, and we did a show about this not too long ago that was intense; and then you bring even more incredible guests on our show. Phil Saviano, thank you so much for coming on the show.
PHIL: Hello! I’m glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.
KRISTIN: Absolutely! Also we have Michael Rezendes. Thank you so much for coming on this show. Shari, how did you all meet? I’m going to turn that part over to you.
SHARI: I’ve been working with trauma survivors for twenty years. Not that long ago I started getting a whole bunch of men coming to see me who were childhood abuse survivors. I’ve always been interested in the topic and done so much work on stories like the Cosby trial; but once I started meeting more and more men who were coming to me after having kept quiet maybe ten, twenty or thirty years about their history with childhood sexual abuse, I thought it was time to focus on what it’s like to be a man and have to live with this kind of trauma. One day not long ago I was sitting with a patient who told me he went to see the Spotlight movie. He said it was a summer weekday and there were about six people in the movie theater – six men. He went on to tell me when the movie ended how each man got in line, walked out of the movie theater, and no one was able to look each other in the eye or make contact. As soon as I heard that story, I knew I wanted to do some more speaking and interviews on this; because the shame that my patient felt, the sadness, and the shame that I imagine all those men felt when they walked out of that room was very intriguing – something I can certainly relate to, but also in some ways maybe I can’t as a woman who is a survivor. In thinking about doing a podcast, I wondered who would be a good person, or what organization would I want to reach out to? So I went and watched the movie and was totally inspired by Phil’s story and by Mike and his role in the story. I sat at my computer one day and wondered how I might find these guys. I went online and found someone at The Boston Globe who was very nice and forwarded me the information that led me to Mike and Phil. So that’s kind of how we ended up here today.
KRISTIN: Let’s do this, so that our listeners know, Phil, do you mind telling our audience a little bit about your history?
PHIL: Sure. I grew up in a small town in central Massachusetts. I was from an Italian Catholic family. I was a newspaper boy not an altar boy. In early 1964 a new priest was assigned to our parish whose name was David Holley. Over the course of the next eighteen months, I was sexually assaulted by him on numerous occasions. I went through a process of grooming where he sort of drew me closer, and I went through a process of feeling fortunate and lucky that this well-respected man was paying attention to me, of course having no idea where it was going to end up. I went through this experience and I always remembered what had happened to me; but I always downplayed the impact – not only in terms of my emotional health, but in terms of his future after he left my hometown. All this sort of came crashing down in late 1992 when I saw a story in The Boston Globe about a couple of victims from New Mexico that he had assaulted some ten years after I knew him. Then I began to realize that he had had a very long career of exploiting the faith and always assaulting victims. So I decided to go public, which was a very big step for me. It was a story that ran on the front page of The Globe and then it was picked up by the Associated Press. Within about six weeks the story and my photo were on the front page of USA Today. I realized that I was very deep in an issue that I really didn’t know that much about. So I went through a process of educating myself. I filed a lawsuit; I went through discovery; I learned that there were seven bishops in four states that knew that this man was a child molester. I settled my lawsuit and I retained my ability to talk about what I had learned by not signing a confidentiality agreement; and that set me up to formalize my outreach. In 1997 I started the New England chapter of the national support network Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). By holding support groups, overtime, I became sort of the go-to person in the Boston area for the news media. In the summer of 2001, I received a call from Walter Robinson, who was the head of the Globe’s Spotlight investigation team, an initial call to see who I was and what I knew. I was very quickly invited in to meet with the rest of the team in what was nearly a four hour meeting that is sort of re-created in the Spotlight film. That pretty much brings us up-to-date I think.
KRISTIN: Yeah, thank you, Phil. I’ve talked about childhood sexual abuse since I was fourteen, and I’m forty-seven, so the time that I started talking about it, it was not okay to talk about. I can understand from that perspective; and I know Shari experienced that as well, which we have shared on the show, and yet another reason why we were honored that you would come on and talk about this yet again, because I know you’ve talked about it for a long time.
PHIL: Yes, since 1992, although I’m starting to get better at it.
KRISTIN: I know it’s something to get better at, but you always think, “If I get better at this I can reach more people.” So I hear you. Mike, tell our listeners a little bit about your background.
MIKE: Well, I also grew up in a Catholic family. I think both my mother’s side and my father’s side have many devout Catholics. We went to church every Sunday; we didn’t eat meat on Friday, and all of that. By the time I got into Boston University, I started to become skeptical of the Catholic church for a variety of reasons, many of them political in nature. I started my career in journalism first at a very small, neighborhood, crusading paper; and eventually landed at The Boston Globe and landed on Boston Globe’s Spotlight team where I’ve worked more or less the last sixteen or seventeen years. When we began our investigation of the Catholic church, I really didn’t know anything about sexual abuse at all, and certainly not the sexual abuse of children; so it was a new subject to me. Usually when I begin a Spotlight investigation it is a new subject for me and there is always a learning curve. I have to say that Phil was very, very helpful in educating those of us on The Globe Spotlight team, and also motivating us to do the best job that we possibly could. If you’ve seen the Spotlight movie, you see Phil comes in and talks with us; and he’s got a lot of evidence and that was very, very important. What you don’t see in the film is that Phil also told us his personal story of abuse by David Holley, and I think we were all incredibly moved by his story, incredibly angry, and when we left I think we were incredibly driven to get to the bottom of things.
KRISTIN: Phil, did you feel that, when you were telling the story, that you were actually capturing their attention, that someone was hearing you, and that they were being motivated to take this and do something, advocacy, around this?
PHIL: That was a remarkable experience for me. I have a very clear memory at one point of sitting, with reporters sitting around me in a half-circle, and I’m talking. As the words are coming out of my mouth, I’m looking around, and each one of the reporters is taking notes. I thought, “Wow!” I had known early on that there was a cover up and that it was nationwide and that bishops were in on it. A lot of these priests were being protected and just moved around and given opportunities again and again to get access to children. I had a hard time getting that message out or getting that viewpoint respected; and I can certainly understand, in retrospect, that the concept that a bishop or cardinal would know about this and not take action to protect kids was really difficult for people to come to terms with.
PHIL: But I felt that in this meeting, for the first time, I was really being taken seriously. As I said the meeting went on for almost four hours, and I think maybe three hours into it they sort of turned the tables on me and Walter, Mr. Robinson, said, “Well, Phil, can you tell us a little bit about what happened to you? What was your own personal experience?” That was nerve-wracking for me because I was there representing other victims – telling others’ stories – and suddenly it turned very personal. I started telling the story and I lost it. I started crying, and I thought, “This is so embarrassing. I can’t seem to reign in my emotions.”
KRISTIN: As if you ever should, yeah.
PHIL: But you know, in retrospect, I think it made several points. One of the points was that the pain is often just below the surface; and that’s true with many of us.
SHARI: I think one of the things that can happen too, when you spend so many years keeping things silent or pushed away under wraps, when you start talking about it – and it sounds like when you were in that room and you realized you were telling your own story – you can get hit with feelings in a way that almost feels like the floodgates are just opening up.
PHIL: Yeah. It was surprising to me when I found myself just overwhelmed by these emotions.
KRISTIN: Mike, what were you thinking when he opened up and started talking about his story?
MIKE: Well, I felt a great deal of empathy, and I also felt a great deal of emotion. I’d begun doing some reporting on this and I had also read about other clergy abuse scandals in different parts of the country including Fall River, MA. As Phil talked about what had happened to him, and really an awful, heart-breaking story, my empathy began to turn to anger that this could possibly happen, and that Fr. Holley could have more victims all over the country. I just started to get more and more angry; and by the time we got out of that meeting, I was determined to get this story. Phil brought a lot of research materials for us, and I began to go through those research materials; and included among them was a seventy page document. It was expert testimony in the case of a serial abuser in TX by the name of Fr. Rudy Kos. The expert testimony was written by a man named Richard Sipe, who was a former priest and psychotherapist; and when I read this document I thought, “Wow! This is my guy! This is the expert we need.” I got in touch with Richard via phone, and in the middle of the phone call I interrupted him and said, “Wait! You have to come to Boston.” (Richard Sipe lives in CA.) I said, with no authority, “The Boston Globe is going to fly you to Boston and put you up in a hotel so that you can come and talk to The Globe Spotlight team.” So Phil, not only did he inspire us and give us a lot of great information, he also gave us a way forward; and that was invaluable.
SHARI: I was going to say, it sounds to me like when you say it’s heartbreaking to listen to what he is sharing but then as you’re going through the experience you find yourself getting in touch with the anger about what happened to him and so many others, I think when you said you were determined you are using all that anger about what you’re hearing, even if you’re not someone that’s been through that, you are certainly an empathic person. Look at the power that came out of that – all that anger and determination – look what you were able to do with that.
MIKE: Yeah, anger turns out to be pretty good fuel if it’s directed in the appropriate way I think.
KRISTIN: Yes, it does. Hey, anger is what started this podcast.
MIKE: You know I had a similar feeling, and in the Spotlight movie you can also see me talking to a young guy by the name of Patrick McSorley. He was telling me about his story of abuse and how Fr. John Geoghan seduced him, and it was just outrageous. I mean, Fr. John Geoghan was hanging around in the neighborhood and he heard from Patrick McSorley’s sister that their father had recently committed suicide.
KRISTIN: Predator on patrol, that’s what I call it.
MIKE: Yeah, predator on patrol. Exactly! Patrick’s mother, by the way, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. It was a very, very difficult family. So John Geoghan rushes over to the house, ostensibly to express his sympathy, but what he really saw was an opportunity. He took Patrick out for an ice cream cone and he molested him in the car on the way back to his apartment which was in a public housing project. I thought this was just outrageous, completely outrageous! It was another instance where someone’s abuse and their ability to talk about it, which is so critical, really helped our investigation. I have to say, one of the most chilling moments in the movie occurs after I finish my meeting with Patrick, and the lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian, says to me, “He’s one of the lucky ones. He’s still alive.” He’s referring, of course, to all of the abuse victims who committed suicide; but the reason that’s so chilling for me is that Patrick McSorley now is dead after having taken his life.
KRISTIN: Yeah, I read about that. That’s the piece, because I remember sitting in rooms like that, and at the time that I turned in my father, I was investigated at my school; but my father, no one ever talked to him. I want to get into this piece with you, Phil, about the grooming, because I know that Shari totally understands that and I do as well. I think that people still don’t understand the level of mindscrew it is to, over time, be systematically groomed by a predator; and that there are people out there who do evil things like this, and that they are actually looking for this and profiling you. So when you realized that you were being profiled and that you were being groomed, was there a shift in how you looked at what happened to you in terms of how you felt about yourself?
PHIL: Oh yes. I remember that shift at the age of twelve. I’m so glad you brought this up because this was one of the important things I wanted to work into my dialogue in the film – the concept of grooming – that the priest doesn’t just one day put the moves on a kid.
KRISTIN: No! It’s the tiny little digs and zings and things that happen over time that get you to the place that they know! It’s a high for them. They know – I got him! That’s the high.
PHIL: Well part of it I think is a slow process and it starts out with the priest – in my case it was a priest – paying attention to me. This man was so highly regarded, so well-respected within the community; and when he arrived in town I was still eleven years old. Having been indoctrinated into all the religious beliefs, I felt that this was the guy that stood between me and God – he was second to God. He was the pathway to salvation, forgiving sins, and could perform the miracle of changing the wine to the blood of Christ. They are at all the most important family events: the weddings, the funerals, and the baptisms. So he started taking an interest in me, which began one morning after CCD classes, when he asked me to stay behind and help him move some boxes. He had some boxes and things up in the choir loft that we moved to the storage room in the basement, and boy did I feel special that he asked me out of everybody else in the class. During that hour long process he asked a lot of questions about school, my family, who my friends were; I think he was just sort of feeling me out to see to what degree I was going to reveal part of my personal life. In my case, and I think in the cases of a lot of children that end up getting abused, there are issues in the family. This issue in my case is that my mother was quite sick. She had a very bad case of rheumatoid arthritis. So I didn’t have quite the level of supervision that other kids my age might have had.
SHARI: You’re more vulnerable.
PHIL: Yeah, I was more vulnerable. So anyways, one thing led to another; I finished the chores; and he sent me off with a fifty cent reward (which in those days was pretty good because I was a newspaper boy and after working a whole week, all I would get was five dollars – so fifty cents for an hour was great.) What I didn’t realize was this was the beginning of a road that was going to lead pretty much to disaster for me. Or course, there were a couple more times of helping with chores. One of the things about Fr. Holley was that he had an unusual personality trait. He was able to bring himself down to the level of a child in terms of the funny stories, the stupid things he would be interested in – and in his case he was really good at card tricks. Now I don’t know of too many eleven or twelve year olds these days that would be that interested in card tricks, but in those years, before the internet and smart phones, card tricks were pretty cool. It was an entry – because after a few days of card tricks with me and a couple of my other friends, one day that deck of cards turned out to be a deck with pornographic pictures on them. But what that did was that suddenly we had a secret that we were sharing with the priest. We knew that it was naughty for a priest to have a deck of cards like that, but did we want to see the pictures? Yeah, we did. We made a little bargain that we were going to keep the secret, we weren’t going to tell our parents, and he was going to show these cards to us. I think in some ways we felt even closer with him because he was sharing this secret with us. From his point of view this was great because that was the beginning of his conversations with us about sex – What did we know? What did we want to know? Eventually the cards got even more pornographic in nature and it led to the day when, standing in the entrance of the church with three of us kids, he exposed himself to us – and we didn’t run away. We thought it was pretty weird, but we didn’t run away. Eventually over time things degenerated to a situation that was pretty horrible, that we were in a combination of uncomfortable, scared, grossed out, embarrassed, ashamed – but could not figure out how to get out of it. Part of the reason for that is the power dynamics. Like the actor in the film says, “How do you say no to God?”
SHARI: But you know, one of the things I think you’re talking about, as you’re talking about the grooming process, even now in 2017 – schools teach kids about stranger danger, don’t get in a car with someone you don’t know, be mindful of who you’re speaking to – but one of the things we still don’t teach kids is how to decipher or how to understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate. We teach it within a certain context, but when you’re already in a relationship with someone – whether it’s your parent, a priest, or a mentor – they don’t teach kids what they are supposed to do when they are starting to feel that, even though this is a person that I think cares about me and is a person that I value, what do I do when I start to get that sick feeling in my stomach. Kids as young as five and six will feel those emotions when they are being violated; but nobody is teaching them what to do with those feelings. When you’re talking about the relationship that you have and also coming from a family where there’s a circumstance where maybe you’re not getting all the attention or nurturing that you need, you’re more likely to stay in that connection just because you need it and you want that attention. So it’s something that, as I sit here listening to you, it really makes me very sad; because as much as we are focusing more on sexual assault and we’re talking more about the girls and boys – one in three girls and one in five boys – that will go through something like this, we’re still not teaching kids what to do and how to know when something is just not right. I don’t know what you think about that, but that’s my reaction as I hear your story.
PHIL: Well, that’s the thing – initially I liked the attention, but I had no idea where it was going to. Then once it got there, which in my case were repeated episodes of oral sex where I was performing the oral sex, I could not figure out how to get out of it because of the power dynamic. I would say to him, “No, I can’t do this I have to go home. I’m going to be late for supper. I’ve got to get back to my paper route,” – whatever. But I never had it within me to yell at the guy or to be really forceful like to kick him in the shins and go tearing out of the church – I just couldn’t…
KRISTIN: You freeze.
PHIL: In those days, it was hard enough to say no to a priest without yelling at him or hitting him.
KRISTIN: We’re taught to be quiet. I had an incident when I was pregnant, with someone in a nail salon who reached into my bra and fondled me, and my husband – this was after me doing years of speaking – my husband said, “Why did you let that happen?” I said, “I just couldn’t…I was so…now if anybody did that to me the clippers would be right in their eyeball, but at that time I was, I was 19, I was so frozen. You don’t know what to do.
PHIL: You know, that’s such a good point because I had a similar situation when I was young adult, probably twenty-two, where I found myself in a situation where I was…well, it’s a long story so I’ll just summarize it. This was in the process of trying to – I was really shut down emotionally for many years after Fr. Holley was through with me. It turned out that I was gay; but the process of figuring out what am I, who am I interested in, was very difficult for me. Putting myself in a situation that had anything to do with sex made me feel very anxious.
PHIL: I was trying to sort of force myself through it, so I was in a situation where I went to my first gay bar in Boston. I hitched in from Amherst, a two hour hitch hike. I stranded myself in the city with no money and no place to sleep, and I said to myself, “Ok, Phil. Now you’re going to be forced to have this experience and figure out if you like it or not.” I got myself into a situation where I was sexually assaulted by two older guys and I was brought right back to that childhood situation where I couldn’t figure out how to stand up for myself. I couldn’t figure out how to say “no” in a way that would be listened to, and it just carried my right back to when I was twelve years old. Really painful.
SHARI: Part of what you’re describing, and I feel like I see this all the time, is when someone goes through this type of abuse at a young age, what happens is that the cycle, the patterns, and the expectations of others are the same. A lot of times people are coming into therapy and are saying to me, “The first time this happened to me, I was this age,” (and it’s usually eight, nine or ten.) By the time they are in my office they are in their twenties, thirties, and forties and they have a multiple history list of being sexually assaulted, being in situations where their boundaries have been violated. I think that’s one of the other things that I found wonderful about this movie – that it really got so many people to talk again about the topic. If you think about all the people that are watching the movie or hearing the story in 2015, there’s a whole bunch of people who have kids, or even young kids, young teens or teenagers who are exposed to this story, they have the chance to have a different life because maybe even if something happened to one of them, they are at a point in their life where they aren’t necessarily having twenty other situations where they were re-traumatized or triggered. I think that’s the worst part about sexual abuse. The acts themselves are so embarrassing, upsetting, disgusting – all that; but I think that the impact of having gone through those acts and not having a way to understand them and not having a place to work it through, that’s what leads people into multiple abusive situations. I think the hope in all this is that the sooner we start talking about it the sooner we recognize what it is that is happening. The second you say you are sitting with the reporters and you feel like they are hearing you – there’s so much healing that comes from that.
PHIL: Yeah, I’d like to make another point though about my history. I think I said earlier that I always remembered what had happened to me as a child. So here I am in my twenties having all these issues, regarding sex or esteem or whatever; and I didn’t have a clue that the problems that I was having were related to my childhood abuse.
SHARI: You can’t link them.
PHIL: Yeah, I wasn’t able to link them. Even in my thirties, I was in public relations and I worked for a hospital and I worked for a PR firm. I thought I was pretty hip and sophisticated. I was well-traveled and so on, but as far as this particular issue and its impact on me, right up until I was forty, I was still clueless. Halfway through my life I turned out to be HIV positive, so then I had that to contend with. I remember in therapy, my psychiatrist really wanted me to talk about my childhood, and I sort of mentioned the Fr. Holley situation in passing, summarizing my childhood, and she wanted me to really delve into it in great detail. I said, “I’m having a crisis as an adult. I’ve got this terminal illness, I’ve got to plan for what good years I have left, and I really don’t want to spend my time in here talking about my childhood.”
KRISTIN: I hear ya! I’ve said the same thing.
SHARI: I hear that all the time. Yeah, why would you want to go back, right? Why is this therapist wanting me to talk about this, right?
PHIL: But when I found myself in 1992 realizing that it was important that I come out with my story, partly to support the kids in New Mexico who were talking about their experiences ten years after mine, then I figured I’d better get serious about this. I went back into therapy and agreed to start talking about my childhood. Eventually I could see all the connections – certainly now. I think a lot of us had that same experience. We go through these horrible experiences as children and then we sort of downplay them, devalue them, or block them out; we really don’t want to admit that the childhood thing has had a lasting impact on our lives.
KRISTIN: The most impact.
PHIL: Who wants to admit that right?
KRISTIN: I’ve always thought to go to the original person – for me it was go back to my father; it originated with him – work on healing that wound, and every horror filled relationship (not that I’ve had all horrible relationships – I’ve had wonderful ones too) but every one that was a horrible, abuse filled relationship got healed just by me working on the original relationship. Mike, I wanted to ask you, one of the things that you do when you are interviewing anyone, and you’re seeing a pattern of behavior – and you’ve interviewed so many victims of this and you did this over time also – so what kinds of things did you see from each victim and also from each of the abusers in terms of patterns of behavior that they all had that were similar?
MIKE: Well there was definitely a pattern among the survivors, and I think Phil is exhibit A. Usually when people, particularly men, are ready to come forward and tell their story and try to get some justice, they are typically in their forties or even older. I think it’s very difficult, for a variety of reasons, for people (and especially men) who are younger to confront this. That’s something I see over and over again. I remember one case where there was an abuser by the name of Fr. Paul Mahan; and through some court documents I discovered some of his victims. They were in their early twenties and I had made contact with them, and they just didn’t want to talk about it, you know? I remember one guy saying to me, “Hey look, I just got my first job and things are going pretty good. I just don’t want to get into this.” Of course, I respected that; but I also was thinking in the back of my mind that twenty years from now you’re probably going to want to talk about this.
SHARI: But you know, even as someone who never went through this, you know the impact that it’s probably having on that person’s life.
MIKE: Yeah, this happens over and over again where people get into their forties and they realize, “Wow! I’ve had all these difficulties, all these problems, my marriage hasn’t been so hot and I get very angry at work; and people start putting it together and connecting it to the abuse they suffered as children or teenagers. It just takes a long time, as Phil said, for people to put it all together and I think the reason for that is because the initial abuse is so traumatizing. Who would want to dwell on it? Who would want to think about it? And who would want to think that that sort of abuse would have those kinds of repercussions? We all like to think we are in control of our lives and we define who we are, and when we discover that no we don’t – it’s psychologically disruptive and unnerving. I think for all those reasons it takes a long time for people to come to terms with what’s happened; and often because of that they are unable to file a lawsuit because the statute of limitations has expired. There are a lot of problems that come with that. There’s the whole issue of does the person want to confront their abuser or not? Is the abuser still alive? Is the abuser around? There are a lot of issues that are connected with that. It ends up being a big piece of work that people have to get through.
SHARI: Just by sitting in the Cosby trial and hearing all of the cross examination, you have to be really in a good spot in your own life to be able to work through some of these issues. You have to have the willingness and the strength. When you are talking about the statute of limitations, it’s been coming up in the trial. There are a lot of questions as to why in 2005 and then again in 2015, and I think what you are saying Mike is that you’re affirming what I wish they were saying in the court room. It can take people, it usually takes people years to even know for themselves that something has happened; so to expect that someone will be able to just go and make a report within a certain amount of time is one of the things that is very important about states ending the statute of limitations to make a report like this. I think we’re starting to realize that this isn’t something you can put a time limit on. You can’t expect someone to think, “By this date you need to be able to do this, this, and this.” I think from what you’re saying, it can take such a long time after the abuse ends to even let ourselves know. Once you start opening up and talking to people – all the risks that come with that – when somebody is trying to open up about their abuse, it sounds like when you were sitting in the room with the reporters you got a ton of support and acknowledgment. Usually that’s not what I’ll experience when I’m working with a patient who’s trying to speak and share. There’s usually a lot of disbelief, shaming, and scrutinizing – “How could you say that?” – that’s what I experience when someone is trying to report to a partner or family member something that happened to them. This is all so important because it’s definitely a step-by-step unpeeling of the onion type of process, and everybody’s process is different. There’s no right way or wrong way to do it.
MIKE: Yeah, some of the sadder stories that I’ve heard have been people who have been abused as children by priests and told their parents and were not believed. The disbelief on the part of parents is particularly devastating, and some of those people have really had a rough time. I know one in particular who’s not around anymore, really because his parents just didn’t believe him. They weren’t capable of believing that a priest could sexually abuse their child or any child.
SHARI: Right. That, in some ways, is worse than the abuse itself. It’s bad enough to have to go through it, but when your own parents can’t believe what you’re telling them – to me, when I think about what happened to me and my experience, I say that a lot now. It’s not what happened to me itself that has left me at times going into that state of despair or feeling like I’m going to unravel, it’s that feeling of being disbelieved and not being protected by the people who are supposed to take care of me, that’s the piece that is the most troubling. I have to say with the trial, because I’m in the thick of it, one of the things that is extremely touching to me is that Andrea’s mom got up on the stand and she basically told those lawyers, “Don’t try to tell me that what happened to her was okay!” because she basically stood up to the cross-examiners, which is not what I see in my practice, and she stood up to them and let them have it. Now here’s a woman who has her mom, from the second she told her mom she was sexually assaulted, her mom got on the phone, called up Mr. Bill Cosby, and said, “Who do you think you are? What do you think you’re doing?” She is – I’m sure she doesn’t feel this way because it’s her story – but compared to other people that I think we all know, she is so blessed. Having that person, someone that close to her, fight with her makes her ability to be on the stand and do what she’s doing actually possible. I don’t know if she’d be able to do what she’s doing without the support she’s getting from other people who never questioned her or never disbelieved her.
KRISTIN: That sounds right to me. All of that is incredibly important, and when you don’t get that, as you said, it’s as bad as the abuse or it could be worse. It’s just devastating when your own family won’t believe you.
PHIL: In the eyes of a child who’s gone through this experience, the two places where he should feel the most safe, the most respected, and the most believed are the church and then the family home. When he’s assaulted in the church and then he goes for help to his parents and they don’t believe him or they call him a liar or it’s not a positive reaction, in the minds of the kid they are left out there completely alone basically to figure out how to deal with this themselves. It’s very difficult to figure out or sort out when you’re ten, eleven or twelve years old. In my case, I made a decision that going to my parents was not a good idea because I felt that somehow I would end up getting blamed for it. Also, because I was a newspaper boy, I knew a lot of people in that little town and I was convinced that if I told my father he would probably, because this was a pretty good prediction of his personality, he would go down to the church and probably punch the guy out – which is fine except the whole town was going to know about it; and everybody, all those adults in my circle, would know that I had been sexually assaulted by this priest, and I would have to still live there because I was only in the 6th or 7th grade.
SHARI: All that exposure is the worst thing for someone who’s been through what you went through, to feel that exposed.
PHIL: And you know here’s the interesting thing, when I finally turned forty I decided that it was time to come out with my story and I told my father for the first time, at age forty, what had happened to me as a kid. He said, “Oh, just put it behind you. Try not to think about it.” I said, “Well, actually, I did an interview with The Boston Globe yesterday and it’s going to come out in the newspaper tomorrow.” And he had a fit. He was really angry with me. He came down pretty hard on me because I was bringing a scandal to my home town. I said to him, “You know what, dad, I didn’t come to you when I was a kid because I just had a hunch that somehow I was going to end up getting blamed for this, and here we are thirty years later and you’re slamming for it. But the difference is that I’m an adult now and I can stand up for myself. I can make my own decisions. I can speak up for myself, and that’s what I’m doing. So the story is coming out tomorrow – get ready!”
KRISTIN: Get ready, exactly. I want to make sure that we touch on the fact that there are things that people can look for, like I said earlier – patterns in people’s behaviors. When an abuser is seeking there is nothing like feeling like you are a meal for someone’s addiction. I know exactly what that feels like and Phil I know that you know what that feels like, and Shari you also. When you are groomed at such a young age, that behavior – that grooming, being a meal, being objectified in that way – that becomes normalized for you.
SHARI: That’s what you expect.
KRISTIN: What I want to get to is patterns of behavior of predators, and I also want to honor that – yes, Phil, you are a survivor; all of these people are survivors – but it is also important to acknowledge that we were once all victims. You do have to wear that hat for a while and own it before you can move into the survivor stage. But I guess what I’m looking for, Mike, as you were interviewing different people, did you see patterns of behavior in the priests that were similar in their personalities?
MIKE: Yes, I think in Phil’s story and in Patrick McSorley’s story and so many others, I think the priests are pretty shrewd. I think sexual abusers are pretty shrewd, and they look for vulnerable children. They look for children who, as in Phil’s case, do not have the supervision that they might otherwise have. They look for children who have been neglected that might be hungering for the attention of a father and not getting it at home either because the father is absent, the father is very distant, or the father is cruel. So I think the reason this happens so often with impunity, or at least it has over the last decades and century, is because the abusers are pretty shrewd in who they target and who they groom.
KRISTIN: Can’t they be a little more dynamic in their behavior as well? They have a special touch, so to speak – I know that’s a horrible way to put it – but a special touch with kids?
PHIL: Yeah, the thing that I recognized early on with Fr. Holley was, as I said earlier, he had the ability to bring himself, his personality, down to that of a child. He was relatable. He told stupid stories and funny jokes. And here’s something that really stands out. The very first time we were introduced to him it was the sixth grade class. We were at the Saturday morning CCD lessons. We were being taught by nuns, and when Fr. Holley arrived, he went to all the classes that morning, going from class to class. You know in that era when the priest walks in the room everyone has to stand up. So I remember him coming into our room; we all stood up; and he said to the nun, “Go ahead. You can continue your lesson, with what you were saying.” And as she’s talking to us, he’s standing slightly behind her facing us and making faces at the nun so that we could see that he was making fun of her. He showed us on that very first day that he was approachable. He was not the typical priest. He could bring himself down to our level. I think that was just part of his typical…
PHIL: It was all very well planned out.
SHARI: There’s another piece I want to add, too, that I think is important in terms of what does the perpetrator look like? I often also feel like there’s a fragility that comes with many pedophiles – a vulnerability. I know in my experience, and in learning more from my patients about their experiences with their perpetrators, there’s this theme of being in connection with someone who is also very sensitive, who will easily get his or her feelings hurt, in some ways breakable. So I think that even though there’s a power issue, and when you’re in that situation as a kid you feel like this person has enormous power, I tend to recognize pedophiles as looking more, and this is not the best choice of words, but more like pathetic. As a kid it’s hard to recognize that; but I know as I’ve gotten older and looked more closely at my history and sit with other person, that’s usually something that I notice. There’s a part of them that is just not able to step up to the plate or stand up for themselves or be an adult. So in some ways I think they relate better to children because they are like children in some ways.
KRISTIN: Yeah, they have arrested development. I’m glad you brought that up, Shari, because when we get into terminology like malignant narcissism or sociopathy or even psychopathy – Melanie, one of our counselors, said the other day, “Not every narcissist is a pedophile, but every pedophile is a narcissist.” I thought that explains it. That five year old that did not ever grow up out of that five year old stage and that is what gives them that ability to connect to a child. Now, not everyone that can do that is a pedophile or a narcissist obviously, but that’s the common theme that I wanted to get out to our listeners – the lurking around schools and all the things we’ve already said – but also that this is someone who has never grown up. They are large grown up people with little kids running around inside of them, and that “kid,” that sick child, is governing their lives. They are taking out that sickness on those around them.
SHARI: Maybe when we’re talking to kids, not just little kids but pre-teens and teens, we make sure we say to them, “When you’re in a situation and you don’t know how to describe what’s going on and you don’t quite know what feels wrong about the situation, you still want to pay attention to that feeling. If you are getting a bad feeling, if you gut is saying I don’t like something about this situation, please go tell somebody. It might not be your parent, depending on who your family is.” But that is something that, whenever I talk to kids or teens in my office, that’s what I try to say to them. We are not wrong in what our intuition is telling us, and we are born with the ability to have intuition. With what we’ve experienced, in some ways it gets shut down when you’re going through the abuse. But if we can try to help younger people understand how to listen to that part of them, maybe we are helping them to do something sooner or find the right kind of support sooner. I think that’s so important.
PHIL: The other thing I want to say is that you talked about stranger danger but for the most part it’s not strangers that are putting the moves on children. It’s usually somebody they know.
SHARI: Exactly! That’s what the schools are missing. They are teaching kids how not to hop in a car with a stranger who offers them a candy bar; but the friend’s parent or the teacher or the priest or your mom, who may be doing things that are horrible, that’s what is missing in educating our little ones.
KRISTIN: Exactly. Phil, can you tell our listeners where has your advocacy taken you today, where are you going tomorrow, and let them know where they can find out more about you?
PHIL: Well, I’m out in California visiting with Richard Sipe, who we spoke about earlier. He and I have become very good friends since the movie. If people want to find out more about me and also have a good sense of what went on in Boston during the 1990s before Spotlight stepped up, they can check out my website. It’s Philsaviano.com. There’s also quite a bit of photos and stories about the movie as well, and I have a very active Facebook page which is Facebook/Phil.Saviano . I’ve had the opportunity to do quite a bit of speaking in the last year. I don’t have anything on the books right now, but I certainly welcome the opportunity to continue to get the message out.
KRISTIN: Thank you for coming on and doing this, Phil. This is awesome!
PHIL: You’re welcome. I’m really pleased to have been asked, believe me.
KRISTIN: Mike, how about you? I know you are actively doing investigative work for The Boston Globe and you probably can’t talk about any of it.
MIKE: Actually, that’s correct. I’m still an investigative reporter with The Globe’s Spotlight team, but there is something I can talk about and I think it’s appropriate right now because the last project I was involved in was an expose of the shortcomings in the Massachusetts mental health care system. The series was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize this year, and it was called “The Desperate and the Dead” and I think if anyone just Googles “The Desperate and the Dead” or Boston Globe mental illness the series will come up.
SHARI: Oh that’s awesome.
KRISTIN: I’d love to have a show on that. Well, how would anyone find you? They would Google your name, which is Michael Rezendes and it will take you right to Mike’s Wikipedia page and straight to The Boston Globe. Gentlemen, I want to thank both of you for coming on today.
PHIL: Thank you. It’s great to know about your podcast. I will listen to other episodes.
MIKE: Thank you so much.
KRISTIN: Absolutely, and I want to say a special thanks to Shari for bringing really good history together so that we can talk about it and keep talking about it.
SHARI: Yes, and I want to say to both of you, because I know we haven’t really had a lot of dialogue, I really do admire what both of you have done in terms of the role you play in the story and the way you’ve been able to get the word out. I know that when that movie came out I was jumping for joy and elated that finally, not only did this movie come out, but it’s winning all of these awards. This tells me that we are finally really starting to deal more with this topic and for me that makes up for any lack of information or education that I had growing up because it’s out there now. I really want to make sure that I say that to both of you, and I know that my patients who talk about your movie feel the same way.
PHIL: The other great thing is that the film has been an international hit, and I know it’s had an impact in many countries outside the US, so the importance of this issue is certainly getting out there.
MIKE: And all of us on the Spotlight team are grateful for that. I think the most rewarding thing for us is how many survivors have told us that they love the movie because it validates their story.
SHARI: Every day I would think there are many people out there that you don’t hear from that think that. That’s why I wanted to find you guys, so I’m so glad you agreed to take this time and opportunity to talk with us. It really means a lot.
MIKE: Well it’s my pleasure.
PHIL: My pleasure.
KRISTIN: Thank you to our listeners for sticking it out with us in over one hundred and seventy countries. Thank you so much for tuning in to Mental Health News Radio.
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