No one taught me more about the incalculable damage of sexual abuse, and the surprising resiliency of the human spirit, than Joe Crowley.
I met Joe in the fall of 2001, when my Spotlight Team colleagues and I were searching for people who had been molested by Catholic priests. Through a network of lawyers and advocates, I contacted Joe, then 42. He was smart, funny, and articulate, but also nervous, insecure, and still trying to recover emotionally from what had happened to him decades earlier.
Joe grew up in Dorchester in the 1960s and ’70s in an extremely unstable family: his mother struggled with mental illness, his father was mostly out of the picture, and he and his four siblings spent years living in a children’s home.
As a teenager, Joe suspected he was gay, which is why he wound up being “counseled” by Father Paul Shanley, a long-haired, denim-clad Boston priest who created a “ministry to alienated youth’’ for runaways, drug abusers, and adolescents confused about their sexual identity.
Of all the abusive priests I covered, Shanley was the most insidious, because he deliberately surrounded himself with vulnerable, troubled teenage boys. For 15-year-old Joe and many others, the “counseling” they received culminated in coerced sex, often in Shanley’s private apartment in the Back Bay.
There were games of strip poker meant, Shanley explained to his victims, to put them “at ease” with their bodies. There were Shanley’s offers to give them “access to his body” to help them get over difficult break-ups. There were overnight trips to cabins that ended in rape.
They were the first sexual experiences many of these young men ever had, and often left them humiliated, ashamed, and afraid to tell anyone what had happened.
Joe’s life followed a familiar trajectory for sex abuse victims: alcoholism, depression, anger, unemployment. He dabbled in prostitution because, he told me, “I began to think sex was my worth because . . . that was [Shanley’s] interest in me.’’
Yet Joe was one of the first survivors brave enough to come forward publicly, paving the way for other victims to tell their stories without risk of social ostracism. And he never lost his acid wit or ability to laugh.
A bond of sorts sometimes develops between reporters and people who share with them these kinds of intimate, traumatic stories. That’s probably why Joe and I never fell out of touch.
Over the years, I checked in with him periodically to make sure he was reasonably stable, and he called and wrote regularly with chatty updates, comments on stories I’d written, and critiques of plays he’d seen. He was entertaining and loquacious; it wasn’t uncommon for me to glance at my phone and find two dozen new text messages, all from Joe.
I also heard from him faithfully on the annual date marking when he had given up drinking. “Thanks for all your encouragement over the last fifteen years,” he texted me on Feb. 7, his 21st “sober anniversary,” as he called it.
In the fall of 2015, I attended a private screening of the “Spotlight” movie along with Joe and a small group of other people depicted in the film. I hadn’t seen Joe in months, and he looked terrible — overweight, bloated, wheezing, tethered to an oxygen tank.
He had recently suffered heart and respiratory failure and was in cardiac rehab, his illnesses worsened by years of heavy smoking and drinking. Listening to him rasp, I thought: the toll of the abuse he suffered as a teenager is still unfolding decades later.
But the movie had a powerful positive effect on Joe. It made him feel important and valued, perhaps for the first time. He adored the actor who played him, Michael Cyril Creighton, nicknaming him “JC2.” They became texting pen pals and phone buddies, just as Joe and I were.
Because of the film, Joe was asked to speak on panels, was interviewed by national publications, and became an eloquent voice for sex abuse survivors everywhere.
He loved the attention. “This is fun!” he wrote to me in November, noting that the Globe’s “Names” column that day had mentioned him for a third time.
Over the years, Joe often contacted me when he was distressed — feeling down, upset with his housing situation, frustrated that his poor health had left him financially destitute and unable to work. But since the movie, his mood had lifted.
“Sacha, I’m loving my life these days,” he wrote in September. “It’s imperfect, but . . . I have enormous gratitude for being alive. . . . I’m in a much better mindset these days. My attitude is so much better and my energy is much more hopeful and positive.”
In October came this text: “Unlike the majority of my life, I’m finally very comfortable in my skin. I’ve come to like and respect myself, which is 180 [degrees] from a lifetime of self-loathing. I have done a lot of work on myself and I actually like myself and have self-respect, at long last. And that’s a wonderful feeling.”
Joe Crowley died at age 58 on Easter Sunday, a date that can’t help but feel symbolic, his body finally surrendering to his illnesses. He passed away in an apartment he had recently moved into in Brookline, a private residence run by the Pine Street Inn homeless shelter.
“Sacha, I’m so loving my new place,” he wrote in August. “It’s so quiet. Such a beautiful street . . . and completely refurbished. One can still smell the fresh paint on the walls.”
No matter what situation he found himself in, he was determined to persevere.
It was an honor to know you, Joe Crowley. You made me laugh. You helped me understand the lasting trauma of sex abuse and the power of human will. And you emboldened countless other survivors to release their painful secrets and reclaim their lives.
That is a life well-lived.Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @SachaPfeiffer.