Survivor who led fight against priest abuse dead at 58

If not for people like Joe Crowley, the Catholic Church’s chronic problem of sexual abuse might never have found its believers.

Crowley was [edit] among the the first victims to come forward publicly when the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team resisted all the pressure the Boston Archdiocese could muster to stop the investigation.

“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.”

He suffered from alcoholism, depression, anger, and unemployment, a familiar trajectory for the victims of priests, the Globe says.

He was a Boston College High School student when a priest raped him, then passed him on to other priests.

Ultimately, people began to believe what Crowley, played by Michael Cyril Creighton in Spotlight, courageously tried to tell them through the Globe’s team of reporters.

He died on Sunday.

Today, Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the Spotlight reporters at the time, penned a tribute to him.

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.

Crowley was 58 when he died on Easter Sunday, a day Pfeiffer found significant.

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.

“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,” Crowley told the Globe after Spotlight won an Oscar for best picture a year ago.