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'Boston Globe' Reporter Pays Tribute To Sexual Abuse Survivor Depicted In 'Spotlight'


In the early 2000s, investigative reporters at The Boston Globe helped uncover cases of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church in Boston, a story that was recently told in the movie "Spotlight." Since then, the church has implemented some changes to make children safer. That might not have happened without Joe Crowley. He was one of the first men to talk about his abuse to reporter Sacha Pfeiffer.

Joe Crowley died this past Sunday at age 58, and this morning in The Boston Globe, Pfeiffer wrote a tribute to Crowley. She's with us now. Sacha Pfeiffer, welcome.

SACHA PFEIFFER: Thanks for having me.

MCEVERS: How did you first meet Joe Crowley?

PFEIFFER: I was introduced to him through a network of lawyers and advocates. And we met at a cafe, and I remember thinking that he was so smart and funny and articulate. But he was also really insecure and very nervous. And he clearly was still recovering from what had happened decades earlier just emotionally and psychologically. And we stayed in touch ever since.

MCEVERS: What happened to him?

PFEIFFER: When Joe was growing up, he lived in an extremely unstable family. His mom had schizophrenia. His dad was mostly out of the picture. There were five siblings total. They actually spent a few years in a children's home, sort of the equivalent of an orphanage.

And so then when he was a teenager, he began to suspect he was gay, and he sought out counseling from a priest named Paul Shanley. He was in the Boston Archdiocese, and he had created what he called a ministry for alienated youth. It was supposed to counsel confused teenagers. And Joe ended up getting sexually abused by Shanley during those counseling sessions just as many other adolescent boys did by Shanley.

MCEVERS: How important was the fact that he came forward and told his story on the record to your reporting?

PFEIFFER: It was huge because there was huge amounts of shame and ostracism associated with saying you had been sexually abused by anyone, let alone a priest. And it took people like Joe who were willing to tell their story publicly to make other people feel like they could be brave enough to do the same and not end up rejected by their friends and family. So I feel like he helped open the floodgates for other people to call us and tell their stories.

MCEVERS: You said you guys kept in touch over the years. What did he think of the movie about this reporting and how it all ended?

PFEIFFER: I think we were all really nervous about how survivors like Joe would feel, whether they would feel somehow re-victimized. But I think almost across the board it was empowering for them. I think it made them feel like they were validated. Their stories had been told publicly. They didn't have to be ashamed anymore. The church had to account for what it had allowed to happen. And I think for Joe, it made him feel really important possibly for the first time in his life. And it really helped him get better I think.

MCEVERS: Joe Crowley died of complications from heart and respiratory illnesses. But before he died, he told you that he had finally become comfortable in his own skin.

PFEIFFER: Yeah. You know, and he kept in touch with me for the past 15 years, and he would just update me on his life - you know, when he was feeling down but also, more importantly, when he was feeling better.

MCEVERS: I was wondering if you could read the last couple of graphs (ph) of your piece starting with, no matter what.

PFEIFFER: So the end of my piece says, (reading) 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 embolden countless other survivors to release their painful secrets and reclaim their lives. That is a life well-lived.

MCEVERS: Sacha Pfeiffer, thank you so much.

PFEIFFER: Thanks very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.