Dozens Stand Vigil in Pa Senate Hallway, Demanding Statute of Limitations Reform
By Brandie Kessler and Sam Ruland
York Daily Record
October 15, 2018
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse and their supporters were back at the state capitol on Monday applying pressure on legislators who they say will either allow a path to justice or stand in its way.
Demonstrators stood in the Senate hallway, some holding signs demanding a #WindowToJustice, while others took turns reading from the nearly 900-page state grand jury report that was released in August and details sexual abuse of about 1,000 children by 301 predator priests.
The window would allow survivors for whom the civil window has already closed to file a retroactive civil claim against their abuser.
Since at least 2005, Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse has been up for discussion among advocates for reform.
And yet, survivors who have passed beyond the deadline to file a civil claim have yet to see reform that they believe would provide them some measure of justice: the opportunity to sue their abuser.
Several dozen survivors and supporters were in the capitol Monday, and planned to be there Tuesday and Wednesday, if needed, to send a message to the Senate, which could vote this week to reform the statute of limitations. If the senate fails to act, the reform effort will have to start from scratch again next year. There is also a chance the senate could vote against reform.
Here’s what some survivors and supporters said about why they wanted to be at the capitol.
To speak for victims who have died
Cindy and Bernie Leech never imagined their family of 12 could feel so incomplete.
Since the loss of their son Corey in May 2017, that feeling has been unavoidable.
Corey was sexually abused by a priest in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese for 10 years.
“He was so devastated by everything that happened,” Cindy said, and eventually he turned to pills as a way to cope with his abuse — “he couldn’t find any peace.”
He died from an accidental drug overdose.
Now, Cindy and Bernie are working toward that peace on behalf of their son.
“All Corey said was he wanted someone to be held accountable,” Cindy said. “The senators need to vote and support the victims, not the pedophiles.”
But they worry that if reforms aren’t made now, they never will be. With the grand jury report shining a light on child sexual abuse, now is the time, Bernie said.
“You would think that this is cut and dry,” Bernie said. “Like it’s a no-brainer. If you vote ‘yes,’ you vote for the victims. If you vote ‘no,’ you vote for the pedophiles.”
Reaffirming the message
Shaun Dougherty has done dozens of interviews, he’s spoken on the steps inside the capitol rotunda, and he’s been in a commercial demanding a #WindowToJustice.
He and other survivors have said everything they could possibly want to say to legislators who hold the fate of their fight against abusers.
Standing in the senate hallway at the capitol Monday was really about showing senators that survivors aren’t giving up.
|Shaun Dougherty, a survivor of clergy abuse, reads an excerpt from the state grand jury report during the demonstration for statute of limitations reform to the state's childhood sexual abuse laws at the state capitol in Harrisburg on Monday. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)|
“This is in the Senate’s lap,” he said. “I believe they know they have to deliver this bill home.”
The abuse perpetrated against Dougherty when he was a child is baggage he carries with him wherever he goes, he said. While nothing will ever take that burden away, being heard by the state legislature would provide some healing, he said.
“This would be the state legislature saying, ‘You matter,’” Dougherty said.
To help others who can't yet speak
It took Diana Vojtasek almost 15 years to come to terms with the the abuse she endured at the hands of Father James Gaffney in the Diocese of Allentown.
|Diane Vojtasek, a victim of clergy abuse in the diocese of Allentown, talks during the demonstration for statute of limitations reform to the state's childhood sexual abuse laws at the state capitol in Harrisburg on Monday. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)|
She said for years the only way she knew how to cope with the abuse was to ignore it. She pushed the memories to the back of her mind so she could lead a normal life.
“It’s not easy to erase that pain though,” Vojtasek said. “Especially when for so long you felt silenced.”
The abuse began in 1990 when she was a 16-year-old student at Reading Central Catholic High School, where Gaffney was vice principal and disciplinarian.
Vojtasek said Gaffney got close to her when he gave her counseling while her parents went through a divorce. Eventually, he started sexually abusing her.
Vojtasek reported the abuse to another priest in the diocese. It was the first time she told an adult — it was the first plea for help. But instead of trying to protect her or other children, Vojtasek said, the priest didn’t do anything.
“That’s not acceptable though,” Vojtasek said. “Something needs to be done.”
Vojtasek said after she came forward with her case, seven other women reported being abused by Gaffney. She's heard that other women have reported their abuse since the grand jury report was released.
“And that’s why we’re here,” Vojtasek said. “It makes a difference.”
Vojtasek said her journey hasn’t been easy. She suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, and attends counseling sessions regularly. Being an advocate for survivors is not always a simple task, Vojtasek said, but her relationship with God has given her strength to keep moving forward.
“God has been extremely healing for me, but I can’t help but think that if more had been done — or if anybody helped me — I could have found closure decades ago," Vojtasek said.
That’s why Vojtasek came to the capitol on Monday. She wants to see changes in legislation, so no one has to experience the pain she did.
“And it’s not about money,” Vojtasek said. “It’s about naming these abusers.”
"I want past survivors to be able to name their predators and be released of that burden,” Vojtasek said. “Survivors have a voice, and that is powerful. They can make a difference by using it.”
Legislators ‘need to stop’ working for institutions
Dave Kohler, of Allentown, was abused by an ordained minister in the Jehovah’s Witnesses in November 1965. He was 9 years old.
When Kohler was 17, his abuser told him to never talk about the abuse again.
“So I obeyed and kept my mouth shut,” Kohler said.
He’s been coming to Harrisburg for about five years to show his support for statute of limitations reform. “Individuals vote them in, and then they work for institutions,” Kohler said of the state legislators. “That needs to stop.”
If reform is passed that would allow Kohler the opportunity to sue his abuser, Kohler said he knows what he would do with any money he could collect.
“I will hopefully be able to afford therapy,” he said.
|Dave Kohler, who said he was abused by an ordained minister in the Jehovah's Witnesses in Kutztown and Emmaus, talks about his experience, during the demonstration for statute of limitations reform to the state's childhood sexual abuse laws at the state capitol in Harrisburg on Monday. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)|
'With legislators’ silence, I’ve found my own voice'
As she stood reading the details of her case from the grand jury report, Audrey Yagalla couldn’t help but fixate on one sentence. She read it over and over again, as if trying to grasp some meaning from it.
“This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief."
“This is a very difficult time in your life,” Yagalla repeated. She laughed and paused for a moment — those words baffled her. ‘Difficult’ seemed like too simple a word, Yagalla said. But that wasn’t really the reason she struggled to read that sentence.
“That’s from a letter addressed to my rapist, “ Yagalla said. “It was addressed to my rapist — not to me. It was a ‘difficult’ time in his life? What about me?”
Yagalla’s abuser was Father Thomas D. Skotek of the Diocese of Scranton.
Skotek raped Yagalla over the span of five years while he was serving as pastor at her school. When Yagalla became pregnant, Skotek helped her get an abortion.
When then-Bishop James C. Timlin learned about the pregnancy, he wrote Skotek, expressing his condolences.
“I never even got a sorry,” Yagalla said. “I was just a problem to be taken care of, a price tag really.”
Her abuse is always with her, Yagalla said, it’s not something she can forget. She was only 16 when she got an abortion. And it wasn’t until the release of the grand jury report that she felt comfortable talking about it with her family.
It was a loss of innocence she has never fully recovered from.
"It’s just been a weight on my shoulders for years,” she said. Finally, Yagalla said, she’s starting to heal.
"I’ve become a voice for the people who can’t speak up," she said.
Yagalla said she’s thankful to the lawmakers who haven’t passed reforms to the statute of limitations laws.
“It seems like an odd stance for a survivor to take, but with legislators’ silence," Yagalla said, “I’ve found my own voice.”
In the letter, Yagall wrote, "Thank you for helping me raise my voice and opening my heart to the injustices that you, as lawmakers, continue to perpetrate within our society, within our culture across our country."
'So this never happens to another child'
This spring, it finally became too much for Larry Ford Jr. to bear alone.
“This has been so hard for me,” said Ford, of Halifax. “I get physically ill when I think about it.”
He was 8 years old and attending Catholic school in Columbia when he was sexually abused by Father Stephen Rolko. After 45 years of staying silent, Ford needed to tell what had been done to him.
An Army Ranger, Ford came to Harrisburg Monday, on his 53rd birthday, to stand in the capitol demand reform to allow victims like himself a chance to file a civil claim.
“I came here to push these senators into passing laws that make priests responsible for the things they did to us,” Ford said. “So they can be held accountable. And so this never happens to another child.”
Ford said the protection of children is the most important thing.
“My philosophy is if we can’t protect the children in this country, we can’t protect anything,” Ford said.