Joe Crowley, who went public about clergy sexual abuse and was portrayed in ‘Spotlight, dies at 58
Day after day in 2005, Joe Crowley sat in a courtroom while a jury heard testimony and evidence about Paul Shanley, a defrocked priest who had sexually abused him when he was a teenager.
“I was sitting 10 feet away from the man who’d raped me, pimped me, and stole my innocence,” Mr. Crowley recalled in a 2012 interview with the Globe. “Watching Shanley answer to criminal charges was the real beginning of my recovery.”
In the years after Shanley was convicted, Mr. Crowley publicly revealed details of what had happened to him and he became a prominent voice for victims of clergy sexual abuse. He even was portrayed by name in the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight,” which recounted the Globe’s investigation of the scandal.
His health fragile for years, partly due to the drinking and smoking that had helped him subdue memories, Mr. Crowley died in his sleep and was found in his bed Easter Sunday in his Brookline residence, his family said. He was 58 and had suffered from respiratory and heart ailments.
“Every time somebody speaks up about this, every time one of us speaks up and talks about this, it’s going to be more difficult for someone to rape a child, to rape any person,” Mr. Crowley told the Globe last year, after “Spotlight” won the Oscar for best picture. Mr. Crowley watched the broadcast from a Brookline rehabilitation hospital because of ill health.
“Joe took an incredible risk coming forward,” said Barbara Dorris, national managing director of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “And when one survivor does it, it’s like giving the rest of the survivors permission to tell. We’ll never know how many people came forward because Joe did, and how many people had hope because Joe did it.”
Dorris, who noted that some clergy sexual abuse victims have committed suicide, added of Mr. Crowley: “He’s probably saved lives.”
Mr. Crowley, who was one of the first survivors of clergy sexual abuse to come forward publicly to the Globe, initially was granted anonymity by Spotlight team reporters because of the stigma associated with sex abuse.
His decision to let his name and experiences become part of the public conversation about the scandal “paved the way for so many of us to come forward,” Ann Hagan Webb, Rhode Island representative of SNAP and formerly the organization’s New England co-coordinator, wrote in an e-mail. “He was a pioneer and a hero.”
Mr. Crowley first saw “Spotlight” in the fall of 2015, a few weeks before its premiere, at a special screening the filmmakers arranged for survivors. On that day he met Jim Scanlan, another survivor, who had been abused by the Rev. James F. Talbot, a former teacher and athletic coach at Boston College High School. Scanlan, who is depicted in the movie under a pseudonym, had remained an anonymous survivor through Talbot’s trial and conviction.
“Meeting Joe and forming a friendship with him led to me to do a story in The Providence Journal,” Scanlan said. “I decided to put my name out there. He made me think, ‘Why would I have any shame?’ ”
Scanlan added that Mr. Crowley was “the most resilient person I’ve ever met. One by one, he’s helped other survivors. His speaking out and coming forward has made us realize the shame isn’t ours.”
Going public “was a big struggle for him because he kept it to himself for a long time,” said Mr. Crowley’s sister Monica of Boston. “It took a lot for him to do it, but he rose to the occasion to make it easier for other people. That took guts.”
Sober for more than 20 years, Mr. Crowley gave up smoking after going into respiratory arrest two years ago, and became even more fragile after a heart attack a year ago.
“He struggled a long time with a lot of problems, and he was in a lot of bad situations,” said his sister Regina of Boston. “It took him a long time to get to the point of his life where he seemed to be doing OK. It’s hard to lose him right now.”
The youngest of five children, Joseph Anthony Crowley grew up in Dorchester’s Fields Corner neighborhood. His father, Edward, was a bartender. His mother, the former Annamae Grealish, was a homemaker.
During his childhood, his parents split up and then got back together, and for a time he and his siblings lived in a home operated by nuns.
Growing up gay in a working-class family and neighborhood only added to the challenges he faced. In a conversation with his lawyer, Carmen Durso, Mr. Crowley recalled that when he told his father he was gay, “he said, ‘It can’t be. Your mother’s not gay and I’m not gay so you can’t be.’”
Mr. Crowley was a Boston College High School student when Shanley raped him, and then passed him along to other men. During that time, Mr. Crowley began drinking and smoking when his abusers provided alcohol and cigarettes. The day Shanley was convicted fell on the anniversary of Mr. Crowley’s ninth year of sobriety.
He dropped out of high school and later received a general equivalency diploma. Durso called him “an extremely bright young man whose life was derailed by Paul Shanley in a number of different ways. He was probably someone who could have been anyone he wanted to be.”
Instead, Mr. Crowley was a concierge in Back Bay buildings and occasionally a dog-walker along Commonwealth Avenue. And yet “he wasn’t an angry guy,” Scanlan said. “He was upbeat, happy, and he used humor to deflect a lot of his pain — but also to make the rest of us feel comfortable. I’m proud to call him a friend.”
In addition to his mother, who lives in Boston, and his sisters Regina and Monica, Mr. Crowley leaves his sister Anne Marie of Cambridge and his brother, Edward of Boston.
Friends and family will gather at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Robert J. Lawler and Crosby Funeral Home in West Roxbury. The Rev. Brian Clary will lead a vigil service at 5:30 p.m.
In “Spotlight,” actor Michael Cyril Creighton portrayed Mr. Crowley. “The first thing that struck me was that he was the funniest person I have ever met,” said Creighton, who got to know Mr. Crowley before shooting scenes for the movie and strove to capture his essence.
“He’ll always be a special part of my life,” Creighton added. “Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to give that performance. I think he informed it in ways that I didn’t even know.”
Since childhood, Mr. Crowley had been a movie fanatic, memorizing trivia that he could rattle off. At the end of his life, his own name was in the credits of an Academy Award-winning film.
“He used to want to be an actor,” Monica said. “Now actors are studying him, trying to be him. It was kind of a turnaround. He made it in his own way, you know? In a big way. He always wanted to be an actor, and he did make it.”