Abuse survivors rage at stalled reforms

Tribune-Democrat [Johnstown PA]

May 26, 2021

By John Finnerty

Abuse survivors and their supporters on Monday expressed intensifying anger and frustration as state Senate leaders continue to refuse to schedule a vote on long-awaited reforms that would open a window for lawsuits against child predators and those who covered up their crimes.

Cindy Leech was on the stage when Attorney General Josh Shapiro announced the results of a grand jury report detailing the coverup of abuse by priests in Pennsylvania, a moment that caused such widespread outrage that abuse survivors and their supporters thought the time had finally come for the General Assembly to act to open a window for lawsuits.

Monday, Leech and her husband Bernie returned to the state Capitol to press the state Senate to finish the job.

The Leeches were there on behalf of their son Corey, who’d testified before an investigative grand jury about the abuse he’d suffered from Brother Stephen Baker, a Franciscan friar who’d abused dozens of boys at Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown.

Corey Leech, who struggled with drug addiction, died in 2017 at the age of 31.

“We are not going away, We are going to fight. The loss of a child, the grief at times is unbearable,” Cindy Leech said Monday. “I would not wish this on my worst enemy. I’m damned angry.”

Bernie Leech said that he and his wife are committed to lobbying to get the law changed to allow victims of abuse to sue even though they won’t benefit from the change. Corey Leech was one of a group that settled a class-action lawsuit stemming from Baker’s abuse.

“We’re just trying to finish what he started, to get accountability,” he said. “That’s why we keep coming back. We can’t gain a penny for this.”

The Leeches were part of a group of about two dozen abuse survivors and their supporters who went to the Capitol on Monday to lobby for the Senate to consider House Bill 951, which would open a window for lawsuits in cases where the statute of limitations has already expired.

Diana Vojtasek, who was abused by a priest in Reading, said that the state Senate’s refusal to vote on the bill makes lawmakers “complicit in the shielding of pedophiles across Pennsylvania.”

Like other survivors of abuse who’ve been lobbying for years for the reforms, Vojtasek said that the effort has been exhausting and frustrating.

“Every time I come to this Capitol to advocate for window legislation, I say to myself, ‘This is the last time,’ because the cost is so emotionally taxing,” she said. “Yet I know in my heart, I will speak out time and time again until the politicians in Pennsylvania take a stand.”

Erica Wright, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said last week that no vote on the bill is planned this week. The measure has already passed the state House and passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support.

Wright said that Senate Republicans are trying to come to grips with whether the window for lawsuits can be opened through a normal piece of legislation without amending the Constitution.

There are also concerns that making a retroactive change on behalf of abuse victims would create a precedent that would allow for similar retroactive changes on other issues, she said.

Both the House and Senate have approved legislation that could get a ballot question on the ballot in 2023 that would amend the state Constitution to allow for the window for lawsuits. A similar ballot question was scheduled to appear on the May 18 primary ballot, but the Department of State botched the public notice requirements so voters didn’t get to consider the question. Former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar resigned over the debacle.