Honoring Jim Bartko’s Memory
Jim Bartko was many things. He was a part of many things. He achieved great things despite the "demons" he had. He was a hero.
He was also one of us, the survivors of priest abuse. He spoke about the abuse he suffered as he handled the business of his recovery from PTSD and the methods he used to self medicate. He was incredibly courageous and a great example of what many survivors are: survivors.
Stephen Kisele, the Catholic priest who abused Jim Bartko, abused dozens, and perhaps hundreds, of children. Kisele had a short career at the Diocese of Oakland, where he started as a seminarian in 1971 and was convicted by 1978. Inexplicably, he remained a priest for almost ten years after that conviction. Then-Bishop of Oakland, John Cummins, permitted Kisele to work at St. Joseph's in Pinole as a layman even after his arrest and conviction for sexual abuse. We need to say that again. After Kisele was convicted of tying up two boys in a church rectory in Union City and sexually molesting them, the Bishop of Oakland put him back in a ministry with children.
So while Kisele is the criminal in all of this, we also believe that Catholic officials in Oakland need to be called out. Indeed, the entire Church hierarchy needs to be called out. Instead of protecting children, the leadership of the diocese let Kisele work with boys and girls again without even warning parents about the danger he presented. Instead of protecting children, they protected the abuser. They educated him. They ordained him. They employed him. Then they protected him.
Unfortunately, there are Kiseles all over the United States and indeed throughout the world. There are bishops who have failed to protect boys and girls all over the United States and all over the world. As sad and outrageous as Kisele’s example is, we believe the situation is more widespread than people can imagine.
Kisele eventually wound up laicized and he wound up in prison. Bishop Cummins retired in 2003 and was feted. Even today, the Oakland diocese refuses to admit to the full scope of abuse that occurred and may still be occurring, within its territory. SNAP has documented 140 priests and lay employees with ties to abuse. The diocese will only acknowledge 65. Last year a clergyman, Alexander Castillo, was being investigated by the Oakland Police Department. He fled the country after being accused of abusing a child. Fr. Castillo is not named by the current bishop of Oakland, Michael Barber, as an abuser. What does this mean? It means that wherever Fr. Castillo might be living and working, he may well be doing so as a priest, and the families of whatever parish he is working may be unaware that he fled a criminal investigation in California.
Fr. Castillo may be this generation's Stephen Kisele. We hope not.
When Jim Barko came forward with his story of abuse at the hands of Stephen Kisele, he helped a lot of people. He helped to highlight the impacts of abuse - the damaging secrecy, the terrible tolls of shame, the importance of identifying the true cause of his coping methods, the system that put him at risk. He was a high-profile example of how to recover and his profile was one of courage.
We are saddened by his death. Our hearts ache for his dear family and friends. We are grateful for his voice when he was alive. We will continue to work for all survivors who, like Jim, were forced to learn how to live through their suffering.
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)