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Seeing ‘Spotlight’ is a step in abuse survivors’ recovery

Abuse survivor Joe Crowley, right, with Michael Cyril Creighton, the actor who plays him in “Spotlight.”Joe Crowley photo

When the red-carpet premiere at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline was over, some of the well-heeled and high-heeled crowd headed down Beacon Street, into Kenmore Square, for a party at a swanky bar.

Joe Crowley doesn’t do bars anymore. He doesn’t do booze anymore. And after watching a movie that featured his real-life experience of being sexually abused at the age of 15 by a priest, he wasn’t in the mood for a party. So we left the theater and crossed Harvard Street to grab some pizza and just talk.

“Spotlight,” the film about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the coverup of sexual abuse by priests, is rightly drawing critical acclaim for the way it captures the tedious, unglamorous reality of what newspaper reporters do to hold the powerful accountable. It’s a very good, very realistic movie.


But for people like Joe Crowley, the movie is not about process. It’s more personal, far more visceral. They don’t call Crowley and others abused by predators wearing Roman collars survivors for nothing.

Three weeks before the premiere, Crowley and Phil Saviano, another survivor who is portrayed in the film, watched the film in an 18-seat screening room in the South End. Tom McCarthy, who directed the film, and Josh Singer, who wrote the screenplay with McCarthy, arranged the private showing.

“Tom and Josh were concerned that the initial viewing of the film would be tough going for us,” Joe Crowley said. “They were right to be concerned. There were 11 of us in that screening room, and from the very first scene, you could hear muted crying. Even the projectionist was weeping.”

So was Joe Crowley.

At the premiere, he vowed to not cry. But the images on screen still overwhelmed him. He cried more than he expected.

“When Patrick McSorley’s character came on the screen, I remembered going to Patrick’s wake in Hyde Park,” he said.


McSorley was 12 years old when a priest named John Geoghan began molesting him. Patrick had used booze and drugs and whatever else he thought might make him forget. But what happened to Patrick McSorley, what happened to Joe Crowley, is not something you forget. McSorley was just 29 when he died in 2004, two years after the Globe published Cardinal Bernard Law’s sickening, fawning letter praising Geoghan, a serial pedophile.

“I didn’t know Patrick,” Joe Crowley said, “but I had to go to his wake. I had to tell his family and his friends how sorry I was.”

When Crowley saw McSorley’s character on screen, he cried again.

“I felt so sad for Patrick,” he said. “I cried for Patrick and I cried for myself. It never should have happened. None of this should have happened.”

After the premiere was over, Crowley hugged Michael Cyril Creighton, the actor who plays him in the film. Crowley and Creighton have become good friends as a result of the movie, just as Phil Saviano is good friends with Neal Huff, the actor who portrays him.

Crowley hugged Jim Scanlan, who was instrumental in seeing his abuser, Rev. James Talbot, sent to prison. Crowley had not met Scanlan before the premiere.

“A very courageous man,” Crowley said of Scanlan, and the same could be said of Joe Crowley, who came forward to point the finger at Rev. Paul Shanley, the hip street priest who preyed on kids. Shanley raped Joe Crowley, then passed him on to other men, who plied a 15-year-old boy with booze and cigarettes and shame.


Shanley was convicted of sexual abuse on the day that Joe Crowley commemorated his ninth year of sobriety, and the courtroom erupted. But Crowley did not.

“Watching Shanley answer to criminal charges was the real beginning of my recovery,” he said.

The film is also part of that recovery. I don’t know anybody who knows as much about movies as Joe Crowley. He can tell you everything about movies and movie stars. He never thought his story would be included in a major motion picture. And his only real pleasure in all this is that it might help someone who was abused as he was.

The night after the premiere of “Spotlight,” Joe Crowley was inside a movie theater again, this one in the Fenway. He and Saviano hosted a screening for abuse survivors, their advocates, and their friends.

Crowley thought he had gotten his emotions out of his system at the first two screenings. But this was different. This was his crowd, his people. The emotion was palpable, completely different from the red carpet night. In the dark, the muffled crying grew louder as the film progressed.

“Everyone in the theater seemed as though they were reliving some horrible moment,” he said.

As the credits rolled, Joe Crowley ran up to the front of the theater with his portable oxygen tank. He looked out into a sea of faces, many of them wet with tears.


“I knew this would be a highly emotional night for everyone so I want you to know I brought extra oxygen for anyone who needs it,” he told the audience. They roared.

An elderly woman came up to him after the Q&A and asked him how she could have entrusted her son to the priest who abused him. How could she have been so blind?

“I didn’t say anything. I just held her gaze,” he said. “I was hoping my dumbfounded inability to grasp a word would somehow comfort her.”

He met survivors he never knew. He hugged and was hugged. He left the theater with 20 new telephone numbers.

Joe Crowley knows movies and he thinks this one is well-made, well-acted, well done in every way. But more importantly, it is a cinematic vindication of those like him, who suffered in silence for years, who still suffer, who live with memories that don’t fade when the screen goes dark and the lights come on.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.