Children of Catholic Sexual Abuse Victim Allowed to Sue California Diocese After His Death

Jim Bartko's children last week filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Oakland on behalf of their late father, thanks to a new California law.

An administrator in the University of Oregon's athletic department, Bartko sued Rev. Stephen Kiesle, 74, for alleged sexual assault that occurred between 1972 and 1975 at St. Joseph's Parish in Pinole, a city northeast of San Francisco.

Four days after announcing his lawsuit at a news conference, Bartko collapsed and died while working out in Oregon in March of 2020. His cause of death was a hemorrhage due to cirrhosis, a result of excessive drinking due to more than four decades of keeping the alleged abuse secret.

The lawsuit was dismissed after Bartko's death, but the new law has revived his case and his estate is allowed to file for damages he would have sought if he were alive. The lawyer for his adult son and daughter filed the lawsuit last week, according to the Associated Press.

The law, which was signed last year, allows people to seek damages for their loved ones' so-called pain and suffering or disfigurement. California was one of few states not to carry forward plaintiffs' claims after their death.

Bartko and his childhood friend claimed Kiesle molested them during sleepovers at the church rectory when they were boys. He kept the secret for more than four decades, leading to self-medication and excessive drinking due to sleeplessness and anxiety.

A convicted child molester, Kiesle gained notoriety in 1987 when he was defrocked. He was convicted in 1978 of lewd conduct after tying up and molesting two boys. He was sentenced to three years' probation. In 2004, he was sentenced to six years after molesting a girl.

Bartko sought rehab for the excessive drinking after it led to his divorce. While there, he spoke with a therapist about the trauma he faced. Ultimately, he wrote a book titled Boy in the Mirror.

The lawsuit is against the Oakland Diocese for allegedly failing to prevent the abuse. Bartko's children have also filed a pending wrongful death claim against the church, saying their father's drinking, which led to alcoholism that caused his liver disease, began when Kiesle supplied him with communion wine before molesting him.

Catholic Church
Jim Bartko's children last week filed a lawsuit against the Diocese of Oakland on behalf of their late father, thanks to a new California law. Above, Etienne Pepin, RCF radio journalist, Jean-Marc Sauve, author of the eponymous report on sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and Patrick Goujon, Jesuit father victim of sexual abuse and author of the book "Please don't abuse," attend a roundtable during the Corref, in Lourdes, southwestern France, on November 17, 2021. Valentine Chapuis/Getty Images

Senate Bill 447 was signed into law last year by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow that change to take place through the end of 2025.

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 health care groups, 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 to have a potentially larger recovery."

During the news conference before his death, Bartko said he had refused to speak with police about Kiesle when he was 12, saying he let down other kids who had reported abuse at the time.

He vowed to continue to speak out and then read a passage from his book that seemed fitting given the change in law that continues to give him a voice in court.

"We finally share what our betrayers hoped we'd always take to our graves because our silence allows them to continue to prey on those too afraid to speak up," he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.