Corey Joseph Edward Leech was ready, in that moment two years ago, to stare down the Catholic religious order priests and their lawyers facing him inside a Cambria County criminal courtroom.
Or so he believed.
A scholar-athlete since high school, he had graduated college magna cum laude while playing on the Mount Aloysius baseball team. He was an intensive-care-unit neonatal nurse in a hospital. As a Little League pitcher, the third-born son of 10 Johnstown boys was so steely, he would load the bases — just to strike everyone out.
But the Catholic Church, as we now know from the way it systematically hid the sexual abuse of children across Pennsylvania, is an expert at killing truth. And Corey's truth — along with his soul — was about to be annihilated.
He was among scores at Catholic high schools in Johnstown and in Youngstown, Ohio, who had been sexually abused by Brother Stephen Baker. The Baker case, which exploded into view in 2013, triggered the state grand jury probe that resulted, last month, in Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's historic report documenting decades of abuse cover-ups at dioceses across the state.
Baker had abused Corey over 10 years, including while working as a "trainer" with the football team at Bishop McCort High. When news broke, in 2013, about the Franciscan friar's past abuse of boys in Ohio, Baker killed himself. Pennsylvania prosecutors began investigating. Corey, soon enough, would testify against the Franciscan priests who had supervised Baker's carnal rampage.
According to prosecutors and Corey's parents, here is what happened when he did:
On April 14, 2016, the Attorney General's Office sent a driver in an SUV to pick up Corey, his mom, his dad, and his girlfriend. They met, of all places, at a Catholic church parking lot. They stepped into the SUV and headed to the courthouse, where reporters were gathered outside.
A few weeks earlier, Attorney General Kathleen Kane had made public criminal charges against three priests who, as leaders of the Franciscan Friars of the Third Order Regular, had supervised Baker for decades. Kane also released a grand jury account of widespread corruption and abuse cover-ups within the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese. (Her investigators would later expand that probe into six other dioceses — Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Scranton.)
Prosecutors asked Corey to testify on behalf of every single one of Baker's victims.
Corey's answer: "Yes."
At age 30, he figured himself strong enough to do it.
Corey wanted only one thing in return: anonymity.
So the SUV slipped into the courthouse that day by going through a garage door to the adjoining county jail. Corey took the witness stand, his parents watching. Prosecutors and defense lawyers huddled with the judge. Out of earshot of everyone else, all agreed that Corey's name would not be read aloud or spoken but entered into the record at sidebar with the judge.
Dan Dye, lead prosecutor for the attorney general, asked Corey just enough questions to lay out the case. This was typical for a preliminary hearing, when the goal is to have the judge send the case to trial. Then it was the defense's turn.
>> READ MORE: Kane: Friars turned a "blind eye" on predator
Sometimes defendants waive a preliminary hearing. Other times their lawyers only superficially question a witness.
Counsel for the Catholic priests went for the jugular.
"The first thing the lawyers for the [priests] said was, they announced his name," his mother, Cindy Leech, recalled as we sat in her family's Johnstown home a few days ago.
Corey was shaken.
Dye objected. Lawyers rushed to the bench. The defense promised not to do it again — but did. They put Corey through three separate, grinding cross-examinations that forced him to recount graphic details of being abused.
This is the kind of sleazy hardball you'd hope not to see from an institution claiming, at the same time, that it has changed it ways.
>> READ MORE: "I only answer to God. Bishops don't bother me."
"After Corey left the stand he was very emotional," Dye told me in an interview. "We met in an anteroom, briefly. He took a deep breath and told me it was the most important thing he had ever done. It was a pivotal moment for him, for the commonwealth, and the scores of Baker's victims for whom he spoke. And it was a heroic moment."
Corey died a year later. He had quit his job. Told his mother he could no longer sleep. Turned to pills to find peace, and, in the final weeks, heroin.
Two of the three Franciscans he'd sacrificed himself for that day in court pleaded guilty earlier this year. They were fined and given probation — weak penalties consistent with the downgraded misdemeanors they copped to.
>> READ MORE: Two Pa. friars plead no contest in sexual-abuse case.
In an extraordinary obituary that his parents and nine brothers wrote together when he died in May 2017, they told the world that Corey had died of addiction, yes, but as a result of having been abused by a man of the cloth and keepers of his faith.
>> READ MORE: The family's obituary for Corey Joseph Edward Leach
Cindy Leech sat onstage last month, with a framed photo of Corey in her lap, as the attorney general unveiled statewide allegations of church abuse cover-ups known across the globe now as "The Pennsylvania Report."
"We had a family meeting and we decided we're going to support what Corey started," Cindy said. "All Corey wanted was someone to be held accountable."
As I write this column, the church again is peddling a line that it has changed its ways. Again, it is trying to keep state House and Senate members from changing the statute of limitations to allow many more victims to sue.
Corey and dozens from McCort were young enough, under state law, to secure civil settlements from the Franciscans and the Johnstown Diocese.