Guest Post by MJ Lisbeth
It was exactly what I would have feared.
It was exactly what he feared.
His mother passed away without knowing two things about him. At least, he had never mentioned them to her. Now he was about to tell one of them to his father — like mine, a blue-collar Italian American of the generation that gave birth to Baby Boomers.
His mother had worked as a secretary. So did mine, among other jobs. My mother went to her grave having learned of one of my secrets, which is often conflated with his. My father learned of that secret — or, more precisely, truth — about me the same day, when I was about the same age as the man who is the subject of this post.
I am a transgender woman. He was gay. At the time of his fateful encounter with his father, that was still enough to make him a pariah, at least in some circles. That, and that he had AIDS. I have lost eighteen people to the disease — five of them between Memorial Day and Christmas in 1991. At that time, getting infected was a death sentence in every sense of the word: You lost your job, possibly your family and friends, and much else, before you lost your very life.
Of course, I consider myself fortunate not to have been afflicted with HIV. But if there ever was anything good to be said for it — especially in those days — it focused its victims, at least some of them. They did not fuck around; they knew they had no time for bullshit.
Which is why he had that conversation with his father. In the early 1960s, a boy named Phil Saviano attended St. Denis church in the Diocese of Worcester, Massachusetts: the locale of the College of the Holy Cross (Justice Clarence Thomas’ alma mater). Later in that decade, I was an altar boy in the Catholic church nearly everyone in my blue-collar Brooklyn neighborhood attended.
By now, you may have guessed (especially if you’ve read some of my earlier posts) what I’m about to say next. Phil and I were sexually abused by priests. To this day, I have not talked about it with my father or anyone in my family. But he would tell his father, some three decades after his experience. Not only that, believing that he was dying of AIDS, he revealed that he was about to talk with reporters from the Boston Globe.
His father was furious. “He couldn’t understand why in the world I would want to do that,” he recalled. For a decade, they were at a standoff over the issue. Then their parish, St. Denis printed a message in its church bulletin urging people to come forward if they had been abused. His father sent him the bulletin.
Turns out, the Reverend David A. Holley had ingratiated himself to a number of young boys, including Phil. A year before he had the conversation with his father — and Globe reporters — Saviano read a newspaper article saying that Father Holley had been sued in New Mexico for sexually molesting other boys. Until that time, he’d thought he and his friends had been the only victims.
If you saw the 2015 film “Spotlight,” this story — or, at least parts of it — may sound familiar. Shortly after meeting with Globe journalists, he asked officials at the Worcester Diocese to pay for his therapy. When they refused, Saviano sued the diocese. In the early stages of the case, he learned that seven bishops in four states had known that Father Holley, whom the church secretly sent to four different church-run treatment centers, was a serial child molester. (In 1993, Father Holley was sentenced to up to 275 years in prison in New Mexico. In 2009, still incarcerated at 80 years old, he died.) Church officials offered him a modest sum to settle the case on the condition that he sign a confidentiality agreement. He refused. “I’m not going to my grave with that secret,” he explained. “It would make me no better than the bishops.”
Finally, the church gave Saviano a $12,500 settlement and dropped the demand that he sign a non-disclosure agreement. “I think they figured I wasn’t going to be around much longer,” he said. But, by then, powerful new anti-AIDS treatments had been developed and he lived until last Sunday. He was 69 years old.
When you realize Phil lived for nearly three decades after the settlement, that amount of money isn’t nearly the windfall that it seems to be. If his life has any more parallels to mine than I’ve already mentioned, he’s spent at least that much on therapists and, possibly, medical help for conditions caused or exacerbated by his trauma. Also, while I don’t know much about him, it wouldn’t surprise me if, prior to coming forward, he’d lost jobs and educational opportunities as well as experiences with values that can’t be calculated at least in part because of his experiences. That he accomplished what he did is astounding: During the nearly three decades after his revelation, he advocated tirelessly for people like me and, among other things, founded a survivors’ network.
So, although Phil Saviano had to experience, at least for a time, exactly what I’d (and he’d) feared, he survived and showed us that we could do exactly what our abusers and their enablers didn’t want: Tell the truth about them and, most important, ourselves. (That is the essence of the “Me Too” movement.) It’s no exaggeration that it’s the (or at least a) reason why some of us are alive today.
He faced what he, what I, feared, what so many fear. If that doesn’t define a hero, I don’t know what does.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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