Jim Bartko

Jim Bartko image via Fresno State

published on January 11, 2022 - 6:20 PM
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(AP) – After decades of dealing with the boyhood trauma of being molested by a priest, Jim Bartko sued the Roman Catholic church two years ago under a provision that extended the time such lawsuits could be brought.

But the lawsuit was dismissed when Bartko — who served as Fresno State’s athletic director from 2014-17 — died four days after announcing it.

A new law has now revived his case, allowing his estate to claim damages he could have sought for his suffering had he survived and prevailed in court.

Lawyers for Bartko’s children filed the lawsuit last week in Alameda County Superior Court against the Oakland Diocese for allegedly failing to prevent abuse by the former Rev. Stephen Kiesle that occurred between 1972 and 1975 at St. Joseph’s Parish in Pinole, 23 miles (37 kilometers) north of San Francisco.

“They used to call him ‘the pied piper’ because everywhere he went, the kids followed him around,” attorney Rick Simons said Tuesday of Kiesle. “He once said, ‘There wasn’t a single one I didn’t molest.'”

A spokeswoman for the Oakland Diocese did not immediately provide comment on the lawsuit.

Kiesle, 74, a convicted child molester, gained worldwide attention long after he left the priesthood in 1987. The Associated Press reported in 2010 that Pope Benedict XVI – when he was then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – resisted pleas from the diocese to defrock Kiesle.

Bartko, a longtime University of Oregon athletic department administrator, said Kiesle had molested him and his best friend during sleepovers at the church rectory when he was a boy.

He kept the secret for more than four decades, weighted down by sleeplessness and anxiety.

Because of excessive drinking, Bartko’s marriage collapsed and he lost his job at Fresno State, Simons said.

In rehab, he finally told his story to a therapist and later wrote a book about his experience called “Boy in the Mirror.”

An emotional Bartko spoke at a news conference to announce the lawsuit in March 2020, joined at one point by his childhood friend who had been abused alongside him.

That lawsuit was filed during a three-year window allowing sex abuse cases that had exceeded the statute of limitations.

Four days later, Bartko, 54, collapsed while after working out in Oregon, and died of a hemorrhage due to cirrhosis.

Kiesle was convicted of lewd conduct in 1978 for tying up and molesting two boys and sentenced to three years probation. He was sentenced to six years in prison in 2004 for molesting a girl.

In 1981, Kiesle applied to leave the priesthood with the support of diocese officials.

But the case languished at the Vatican. A 1985 letter in Latin obtained by AP bearing Ratzinger’s signature told Bishop John Cummins that removing Kiesle was of “grave significance” and a decision required “very careful consideration, which necessitates a longer period of time.”

Church officials in California wrote at least three times to Ratzinger to check in and Cummins discussed it during a Vatican visit, according to correspondence. A Vatican official at one point said the file may have been lost and suggested resubmitting materials.

Kiesle was finally defrocked in 1987.

Bartko’s adult son and daughter have a pending wrongful death claim against the church for their own losses. They said their father’s drinking, which began when Kiesle gave him communion wine before molesting him, led to self-medication and alcoholism that caused his liver disease.

But the new case allows them to carry forward their father’s claims for the emotional and psychological toll the abuse took on his life.

Previously, survivors of plaintiffs who died in California could seek damages for economic losses such as wages or medical bills, but not for their loved ones’ so-called pain and suffering.

Senate Bill 447 was passed last year to allow that change and signed into law by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Supporters, led by Consumer Attorneys of California, said the previous law created “a perverse incentive for defendants to delay cases and harass ill or injured plaintiffs in the hopes that the plaintiff will die before trial, allowing the wrongdoer to avoid paying any damages for the human suffering they have caused.”

Opponents, led mainly by doctors and groups in the health care business, warned of the “collateral damage such a change would bring to all stakeholders of our civil justice system.”

Attorney Daniel Hurwitz, who is not involved in the case, said a subset of cases will have the potential to win more damages and attorneys will have to factor that in when assessing the value of the case.

“The damages picture can change dramatically if the plaintiff were to pass away,” Hurwitz said. “Certainly any plaintiff decedent with a lengthy pain and suffering period – that estate is going too have a substantially larger recovery.”

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