In a residential treatment facility last month, 44 years of anxiety, guilt and shame began to lift off the shoulders of Fresno State Athletic Director Jim Bartko.
Bartko checked himself into Sierra Tucson, which provides rehabilitation services in Tucson, Ariz., on Dec. 20 with the intent of addressing issues with insomnia and anxiety that began as a child. After some inconclusive tests, a therapist asked Bartko a poignant and terrifying question: “Why did you not sleep when you were 11?”
In that moment, Bartko decided it was time to finally tell someone that he was molested around 35 times in the early 1970s by his childhood Catholic priest and basketball coach, Stephen Kiesle, in the rectory of Saint Joseph Church in Pinole, about 18 miles north of Oakland.
After leaving Sierra Tucson on Jan. 7, Bartko told his story of abuse for the first time to his mother, wife and children. Wednesday, he opened up to his colleagues in an email to the Fresno State athletics department staff.
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He sat down Friday with The Bee to share his story with the public for the first time because he wants to be an advocate to help stop child abuse.
I want to protect my kids and I want to protect other kids so they have a good, healthy life.
Of the abuse he endured, Bartko said, “I buried it, and had guilt and shame that maybe I could have helped some other kids.”
For other child abuse victims, he has this message: “Don’t be ashamed. Don’t hide it. Hiding it doesn’t do any good, because at some point it’s going to come out. Bad things can happen if you suppress your feelings, and I’ve felt some of those. … Holding it in doesn’t do anybody any good. There’s help out there.”
Bartko was 7 years old when the molestation began at the hands of the “big and gregarious” Kiesle, who coached the first basketball team he ever played on as a second-grader.
“I looked forward to the basketball team – that was my goal, to play on a team,” Bartko recalled. “He was the coach and you just kind of idolized him, you didn’t want to let him down, and he used that authority and that power to do things with people that he shouldn’t have done.”
Bartko said each time he was molested, it was in the church rectory alongside a friend his age.
“I used to crawl out of bed when he would abuse me and I’d go roll on the couch and kind of cry when I was little, and to this day, I still go to the couch when I can’t sleep. When I talk to people about it, they say that is kind of your safety net and your ‘binky.’ ”
The abuse stopped after his family moved from Pinole to Modesto when he was in the fifth grade. In the seventh grade, Bartko’s family received a call from police investigating allegations against Kiesle.
His mother asked him then if he had been abused, and Bartko said no.
Of his answer: “I regret it to this day.”
What I’ve fought with for 44 years is: ‘Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I do something?’
Bartko said he copes by being social, but the pain lingers and resurfaces.
“There were times when I wouldn’t worry about it for years, then something would kind of hit me. It always affected me at night, when it was quiet, dark. Driving in a car long distances, going to church, those type of things. Small things brought it up.”
He got good at burying his feelings.
“I could put up a good front for people.”
Bartko remains Catholic, and said his decision to talk about the abuse is not an attack on the church. His 13-year-old daughter attends a Catholic school in Fresno, and his 20-year-old son attends a Catholic college.
“There are great people in the ministries, whether that’s Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopalian, Mormon or whatever it might be. This is one bad person, and there are bad people wherever you go.”
I try to make sure people know I care.
Bartko isn’t planning to file charges against Kiesle, but wants him to know what he did hurt him and a lot of people.
Kiesle’s case has been well documented. He was convicted in 1978 for molesting two boys, and later sentenced to prison for six years in 2004 for a 1995 child molestation. He wasn’t defrocked until 1987, despite concerns voiced to the Vatican, and the Catholic Church has paid millions in settlements to his victims over the years.
Kiesle is now registered as a sex offender in Walnut Creek, where he has been living since he was released from prison in 2010.
Bishop Michael Barber of the Diocese of Oakland released a statement Friday saying he is “deeply sorry” for the hurt Kiesle caused.
“While I know my predecessors and others moved as quickly as they could to remove his access to children, the pain that he inflicted on vulnerable young people is a crime and a sin,” Barber wrote. “The Diocese has provided counseling and other services to all who have brought credible allegations of clergy sexual abuse to our attention. We continue to do so.”
The Catholic Church has received hundreds of reports of sexual abuse committed by priests. Cheryl Sarkisian, victim assistance coordinator for the Diocese of Fresno, said great strides have been made in helping victims and stopping abuse within the church, including a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002 that mandated a victim assistance coordinator in every diocese – although allegations of abuse should first be reported to local law enforcement.
“We want to not only be transparent, but accountable,” Sarkisian said. “We want to make sure we do what we need to for that victim.”
Bartko and Fresno State
Bartko’s tenure at Fresno State began Jan. 1, 2015. The Stockton native returned to the San Joaquin Valley following 21 years at Oregon, the last eight as senior associate athletic director.
As athletic director, Bartko’s primary responsibilities include overseeing the Bulldogs’ $33 million athletic budget, fundraising and compliance, plus the hiring and firing of coaches. His first major personnel decision occurred Oct. 23 when he and President Joseph Castro dismissed football coach Tim DeRuyter two-thirds of the way through what became a dismal 1-11 season, the worst in school history.
Bartko said Friday that the stress of firing DeRuyter, who he likes and admires – along with worrying about how that decision affected DeRuyter’s family and other staff – contributed to his checking into Sierra Tucson last month.
“Lots of things kind of snowballed … and I hold things in and I care about people. I’ve always been a people person. … I’m a people pleaser and I have guilt.”
I was good at burying my feelings. I could put up a good front for people.
After DeRuyter was fired, rather than hire a firm to identify candidates and set up interviews, as is fairly typical in college athletics, Bartko directed the search himself. Eighteen days later, on Nov. 11, Fresno State hired Jeff Tedford, the former Bulldogs quarterback and assistant coach who had been the presumed favorite.
Bartko said although some anxiety and insomnia ramped up about five years ago after learning Kiesle had been released from prison and was living close to one of his former homes, the way he has been feeling recently isn’t different from how he has felt for the past 44 years, and hasn’t impaired his ability to make sound decisions.
“I never make a decision by myself anyway. It’s always a group decision.”
The day after Bartko checked into Sierra Tucson, Fresno State announced a five-year contract extension for men’s basketball coach Rodney Terry that had been agreed on in May. Bartko was quoted in the school’s press release, though no indication was given that he had temporarily stepped away from his duties as AD.
During his 19-day stay at Sierra Tucson, Bartko was able to use his phone for half an hour each day. He said senior staff knew where he was and that questions also could be relayed through his wife, with whom he spoke every night. He said it was the best time to go, especially as it coincided with vacation he had planned over the holidays.
Bartko said his staff told him “they wouldn’t call me unless it was something critical, and nothing happened.”
The abuse Bartko experienced as a child usually happened after Kiesle took him out for dinner and to watch a sports event, often the Golden State Warriors.
“Ironically,” Bartko said, at Sierra Tucson he became part of a group called the “Warrior Lodge,” and one of its members passed out Golden State Warriors wristbands, which Bartko continues to wear with pride. It’s become a visual reminder of his healing.
“It’s taken away the shame of back then.”
Bartko plans to continue counseling. Opening up has been therapeutic.
I feel good about opening up about it. Maybe I can help somebody else.
Bartko is eager to hear from community members about how he can partner with others to help stop child abuse. He wants to speak more about the issue to promote education and awareness.
And while the trauma of the past can never be erased, Bartko believes what happened to him also gave him the “impetus to be better and to live every day happily and to treat people with respect.”
Some of the best therapy over the years was coaching his children’s sports teams. He strove to be the role model and coach he wished he had had as a child. Seeing his players smiling and having fun was the greatest reward.
“I love what I do. I love people and kids and family. Now I’ve got to come to grips with my past, but it’s not going to stop me. It’s not going to rule who I am.”
▪ The Catholic Church has established avenues for victims to report allegations of child abuse. In the Fresno Diocese, go to dioceseoffresno.org/safe-environment or contact victim assistance coordinator Cheryl Sarkisian at 559-488-7409 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
California’s Megan’s Law identifies registered sex offenders. meganslaw.ca.gov