At a recent basketball game, an old friend of Fresno State Athletic Director Jim Bartko put his arm around Bartko and started to cry. The friend told Bartko that he was also molested as a child, and that Bartko’s decision to share his own story of abuse inspired him to do the same.
“I think it’s my time to help,” Bartko says. “If I can help one person or two people or five people, that’s all that matters.”
The number of people he’s helped since he shared his story of abuse for the first time publicly in January in The Fresno Bee has been far greater. In his Fresno State office earlier this week, Bartko looked affectionately at a large stack of letters and thank you cards on his desk – many from people he’s never met.
Some of those messages:
“Thank you for sharing your nightmare. I hope I get the chance to shake your hand and thank you in person. Your story is a reminder that I can overcome this.”
“BE BOLD. The motto of Fresno State, the motto of your actions. You sir have exemplified the qualities of boldness and courage. Not many would take the step of admission, fewer a proclamation publicly. Yet by doing so, you have brought healing out of darkness.”
“You are a hero. Hope you know it.”
These messages – and the many more “thank yous” he’s received around campus and town – mean the world to Bartko.
“That’s my therapy,” he says.
Talking about what happened is helping, but the trauma isn’t gone.
“I’m still bitter, I’m still angry,” Bartko says, “but how can I make that anger and bitterness become a positive? That’s what I’m working on right now.”
You’re not alone. People out there care. Talk about it.
Since Bartko went public with his story to help stop sexual abuse, he’s been a guest speaker for more than a dozen organizations, including charities, churches and youth groups. His latest talk was Wednesday at Fresno State for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. He’s eager to keep the conversation going.
In the audience Wednesday was a childhood friend, Terri Rosson, who Bartko hadn’t seen for more than 40 years. Rosson, like Bartko, says she was molested by Stephen Kiesle, a defrocked Catholic priest sentenced to prison for molesting other children. Kiesle was released in 2010 and now lives in Walnut Creek with Rosson’s mother, who he married.
Rosson was one of the first people Bartko told about the abuse after he shared what happened to him in late December while in a rehabilitation center in Arizona.
“It was wonderful, I cried tears of happiness,” Rosson recalls of hearing from Bartko. “I was happy to know he was taking the next step and he was on his way to healing.”
It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
Rosson and other victims filed suit against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland in 2010. She says the lawsuit was filed but not served because the statute of limitations – the time frame for bringing certain legal actions – had passed. Bartko doesn’t plan to sue.
Rosson’s decision to share her story publicly encouraged Bartko to do the same. She’s proud that Bartko is now helping other victims by telling his own story.
“It’s really about reaching out to others who don’t have a voice,” Rosson says, “because at one point, we didn’t have a voice either.”
Bartko’s big message: Help is available, and don’t wait to get it.
Talk about it, heal, get it out, make people around you better.
“Trauma has affected me. It affected my family, it affected my mom and dad, my kids. Holding it in did me no good,” Bartko says of waiting 44 years to talk about the molestation he experienced as a child.
Bartko spoke on Wednesday alongside Tim Mousseau of CampusSpeak, another survivor of sexual abuse. Mousseau started speaking out against sexual violence after hearing his friends make a rape joke one night: “I realized the way we talk about this isn’t OK.” He stressed that the “language you use around sex matters” and it can help prevent abuse.
More than 100 people listened to Bartko and Mousseau’s talks, titled “Retaking our Story: Reframing the Sexual Assault Conversation.” The largest group in the audience were uniformed members of Fresno State’s Army ROTC program. Its executive officer, student Olivia Newcomb, says Bartko will help many victims.
“They might be more willing to share because they can see how it affected him for that long,” she says, “so they might be more willing to get that help now rather than later.”
When you see a senior leader like Jim be able to have the courage to stand up and say this is wrong
Boyce Buckner, director of Fresno State’s Army ROTC program
Bartko continues to see a therapist and is attending a support group through The Well Community Church. He was invited to join by his hairstylist, Roy Silva, who helps lead the group. Silva has seen a big change in Bartko over the past two months: “He is more relaxed, like a weight has been lifted.”
Still, the weight isn’t gone.
Bartko describes the road to recovery like a winding coastal highway, not a straight and speedy interstate: “I always say you take two steps forward and one step back.”
He still battles guilt for not speaking up about his abuse earlier – what he envisions could have helped prevent other children from being molested. But day-by-day, Bartko is moving forward.
There’s one message that Bartko says he’s shared with all the groups he’s talked with:
“We’re all alike, everyone has their issues, everyone has their demons. … We all have our crutches and we need people to support us, we need people to care for us, we need to have forgiveness.”
How to get help
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Here are some resources where victims can get help:
- Rape Crisis Services of Fresno has a 24-hour crisis hotline: 559-222-7273
- The Marjaree Mason Center has advocates who help victims of abuse. The 24-hour hotline is 559-233-4357.
- Fresno State has a number of resources for students that can be accessed through the Student Health and Counseling Center (559-278-2734) and a confidential victim advocate (559-278-6796 or firstname.lastname@example.org). Fresno State counselors are available from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Monday and Thursday in university courtyard, Sycamore Room 134, through the “Let’s Talk” program.
- National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-7233
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
- Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests: 1-877-762-7432