For about an hour on Tuesday, Cindy Leech sat on a stage inside the Pennsylvania State Capitol, holding a framed picture of her son, Corey Leech, with his shock of sandy-colored hair and broad smile.
She listened as Attorney General Josh Shapiro publicly released a grand jury report that exposed decades of child sexual abuse and cover-up in six of the commonwealth’s Roman Catholic dioceses.
Leech was joined by more than a dozen other victims or family members of those who have died.
The resident of Johnstown’s Roxbury neighborhood was invited to the event to honor her son, who played a significant role in the process of the investigation before his death in May 2017.
Corey Leech anonymously testified that he was sexually abused by Brother Stephen Baker, when Leech was a student at what was then Bishop McCort High School, in a hearing to determine if the friar’s superiors at the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception – the Revs. Robert D’Aversa, Giles Schinelli and Anthony Criscitelli – failed to properly protect children from the predator.
D’Aversa and Criscitelli pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of children earlier this year. Charges were dropped against Schinelli.
The case developed from an inquest by the attorney general’s office into Baker. That effort grew into a larger investigation that, in 2016, exposed a cover-up to protect sexually abusive clergy members within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. That discovery, along with the hearing against the ministers provincial, provided the impetus for the state to look at the Allentown, Scranton, Erie, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Allentown dioceses, where more than 300 clergy members were accused of abusing thousands of children in Tuesday’s grand jury report.
“It meant the world to him, to us, to all the brothers, to the family,” said Cindy Leech when talking about her son’s contributions during an interview at her home on Wednesday.
“That was his legacy,” she said. “That’s what he wanted. He’s a hero to me and to all his brothers.”
Robert Hoatson, co-founder of Road to Recovery, a support group for victims, said Leech testified because he “really was looking out for the safety of other people.”
“I guess I could say that I’m so glad that Corey had the courage to testify, since I believe that’s the basis for the ongoing reports that occurred,” Cindy Leech said. “I just hope that it continues and that everybody realizes the severity of everything that the priests have done.”
‘Deeply caring person’
Corey Leech was a health nut.
He ran, biked, hiked and played baseball, football and basketball during his time at Bishop McCort – where he graduated in 2004. He then pitched for the Mount Aloysius College baseball team.
He loved to travel to destinations such as Jamaica and Mexico.
And, professionally, as a nurse, he helped the most vulnerable children in Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center’s intensive care nursery.
“To this day, people stop us and say if it wasn’t for Corey their babies probably wouldn’t be here today,” his mother said. “He was a big guy – 6 foot, with big hands – and he’s taking care of one-pound babies. He was so very proud of what he did. He always loved babies from when he was little.”
Hoatson, who counseled Leech, described him as a “very deeply caring person.”
‘People to prey on’
Leech was abused as a child by Baker, who served at Bishop McCort – on assignment from the Province of the Immaculate Conception – officially from 1992 to 2000, while also having access to the school for years to follow.
Baker ingratiated himself to the deeply religious family that included 10 brothers. He would show what – at the time – appeared to be gestures of kindness, such as stopping by the house with some extra food he picked up at the supermarket.
“They know how to work it,” Corey’s father, Bernie Leech, said. “They know what people to prey on. We never thought a damn thing about it. He was a nice guy trying to help us out, whatever it may be, because we had a big family. He’s not going to do anything wrong. It never crossed our mind – never, ever.”
“It’s so hard as a parent because you just ask yourself over and over and over ‘How did I miss it?’ ” asked Cindy Leech.
In late 2012 and early 2013, Baker’s abusive history became publicly known. He has been accused of sexually assaulting children not only during his time at Bishop McCort, but also earlier in Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio. Only then did the family learn Baker had violated Leech.
Baker died in January 2013 from what was reported as a self-inflicted knife wound to the heart.
Leech was one of more than 90 local victims to receive settlements from the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese, Province of the Immaculate Conception and Bishop McCort.
Cindy Leech, mother of Corey Leech, displays a green bracelet with the words “Forever 10” and a football and baseball on them that family memb…
“The money means nothing,” Cindy Leech said. “I don’t care if you’re poor and don’t have bread to put on the table, if you have to endure something like this, what good is it? Your whole life is ruined. You’ll never be the same.”
When Leech realized other victims who received settlements were not going to testify, he stepped forward.
“His exact words were, ‘Somebody has to be held accountable,’ ” his mother said.
‘He chose to testify’
Leech turned to drugs to numb his pain.
“I didn’t understand that then,” said Bernie Leech, who did not know his son was abused by Baker at the time. “I didn’t. I really didn’t.”
Hoatson tried to help Leech, who “struggled obviously with the demons of having been abused.”
But Leech was found dead on May 5, 2017, inside a Richland Township apartment complex.
He was 31.
“You’re never supposed to bury your kid before you,” Bernie Leech said.
His mother added: “We tried to go to rehab. Everybody encouraged him, all his brothers. Everyone tried to help. He just couldn’t overcome it. He told us that was the only way he could sleep at night was to take something. It just escalated.”
The family ran an obituary in The Tribune-Democrat that laid bare the damage Baker inflicted, without actually naming the brother.
The obituary read: “When his years of private torment became national news, Corey made an uncommonly brave decision. He chose to testify. He wanted to prevent other children from living his nightmare.
“While he did more than his share to help others, it was too late for Corey. His nightmare was inescapable. Years of abuse by this clergyman destroyed Corey’s faith. The house of God no longer provided any solace for Corey, so he sought peace the only way he could, through substance abuse.”
‘Tip of the iceberg’
Leech family members wear green bracelets with the words “Forever 10” and a football and baseball on them. As in forever 10 brothers: B.J., Adam, Corey, Travis, Josh, Rhett, Christian, Drake, Zef and Hunter.
A photo of Corey, the third-oldest of the brothers, hangs on his parents’ wall.
Passers-by tap wind chimes that hang near the living room to remember him. The parents and brothers have released ceremonial balloons in his honor.
The Corey Leech Memorial Scholarship Fund has been established – through the family and Community Foundation for the Alleghenies – to financially support Bishop McCort students who pursue post-secondary education in nursing.
And, this year, they once again plan to celebrate the holidays with a meal at Rizzo’s Restaurant in Windber – a tradition Corey proposed starting.
The youngest brother still attends Bishop McCort, as did all his siblings before him.
But the faith that was once a cornerstone of the family is damaged.
“That’s one thing we used to do religiously,” Cindy Leech said. “We went to holidays – every Sunday together – to church. We never missed. And now, not wanting to set foot into a church, it’s hard. It was a huge part of our lives. All the boys were altar boys. They all went to Catholic schools. When everything happened with Corey, it was ripped out of you.”
Now, in their son’s memory, Cindy and Bernie Leech hope Shapiro, deputy Daniel Dye and other officials in the AG’s office will continue to pursue sexual predators across the commonwealth.
“They truly believe that they’re doing the right thing, and they are,” Cindy Leech said.
“I guess we never realized how big this was going to be. It’s huge.
“I hope this is only the tip of the iceberg. I hope they get everyone that has ever done anything – not just in Pennsylvania, but across the states.”
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5056. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Sutor.
Editor’s note: Tribune-Democrat reporter Dave Sutor has been covering child sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown and Pennsylvania since 2013. Corey Leech’s abuse and involvement in the case against three ministers provincial from the Third Order Regular, Province of the Immaculate Conception was not publicly known until his death in 2017. But, for full disclosure, The Tribune-Democrat would like readers to know the Sutor and Leech families are related.