Months after lawmakers in neighboring New York and New Jersey passed laws expanding their states' statutes of limitations on child sex abuse cases, thereby allowing victims to sue, in Pennsylvania a similar push has stalled.
At present, state law requires victims to file civil claims before age 30 and closes the door on criminal prosecutions when victims turn 50. Almost all of the more than 1,000 cases documented in the grand jury report fell outside these limitations.
To give victims a chance at restitution, the jury panel recommended that lawmakers set up a temporary "lookback window" to allow claimants to file civil suits against their abusers — as well as institutions that facilitated the abuse — even if the statute of limitations has run out.
Within weeks, the House approved a bill that would have opened a two-year lookback window for civil suits and abolished the statute of limitations on criminal cases.
But the measure was derailed in the Senate, thwarted by opposition from the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania and leading Republicans concerned that the lookback provision was unconstitutional and could lead to uneven standards for different institutions.
As a result of a bipartisan effort, a pair of revised bills were introduced in the House earlier this year. These measures would extend the cutoff age for civil claims from 30 to 55, eliminate the criminal statute of limitations and set in motion a bid to amend the state constitution specifically to set up the lookback window.
The bills passed the House in April and are currently under consideration in the Senate. But according to analysts, even in the best-case scenario, the proposed amendment will take two years to make its way out of the legislature and onto state ballots. Victims and their families are bracing for a long, grinding process. For many, the prospect of waiting until 2021 for their first shot at justice is gut-wrenching.
"These linked bills are no shiny victory trophy," said victims' advocate Kathryn Robb, executive director of CHILD USAdvocacy. "For most victims, they are an empty gift, with an empty promise — the perfect Trojan horse of justice delayed and, ultimately, denied."
In an interview this week with Johnstown newspaper The Tribune-Democrat, Cindy Leech of the diocese of Altoona-Johnstown reflected on the lack of progress in Harrisburg.
"We thought once that report was released that things would move forward a lot better than they did," said Leech, whose son Corey was sexually assaulted by a religious brother at a local Catholic high school.
Her husband, Bernie Leech, agreed. "[N]othing really changed since the report came out," he lamented. "[A] lot of awareness of everything, but nothing's really changed."
In May 2017, Corey died of a heroin overdose. His abuse and subsequent death have left the family with deep spiritual, psychological and emotional wounds.
Once devoted Catholics who attended Mass regularly with their 10 sons, today Cindy and Bernie Leech have drifted away from the Church.
"I still believe in God," Bernie reflected, "but I don't need to go to church, a building to talk to him. That's the way I look at it now."
"You look at all these people. They go to church. They're blind. They live in a bubble," said Cindy.
"They're blind. They do exactly what the Church tells them to do. And we were guilty of that, too, until you realize if it happens to you, you change, you open your eyes and you see what's going on," she added. "Part of me feels bad for the people that are still being led in that direction and they can't see the writing on the wall, unless it happens to them."