The family of a deceased man who said he was repeatedly sexually abused as a child by a Bay Area Roman Catholic priest is suing the Diocese of Oakland under the provisions of a new state law that allows such cases to move forward.
The family and estate of Jim Bartko, former athletic director at Fresno State University, filed the suit last week in Alameda County Superior Court.
The suit alleges Bartko suffered repeated sexual abuse from 1972 to 1975 at the hands of Stephen Kiesle, then a priest with the Diocese of Oakland and assigned to St. Joseph’s Parish in Pinole.
It also claims the diocese knew of Kiesle’s “history of sexual conduct with and sexual assaults upon minors” prior to his alleged abuse of Bartko and negligently allowed Kiesle to continue working with children despite that knowledge.
Kiesle was convicted in 2004 of sexually abusing a child, got out of prison in 2009 and lives in Walnut Creek, according to the California Megan’s Law website.
He was also convicted in 1978 of sexually abusing children at Our Lady of the Rosary Parish in Union City but was allowed to return to work while he was on probation, according to Bartko’s attorneys.
Kiesle left the priesthood in 1981, but returned to St. Joseph’s in 1988 as a volunteer youth minister, Bartko’s attorneys said.
He is listed as a “credibly accused clergy” on the diocese website, which says he was removed from the ministry in 1978 and “laicized” in 1987.
Bartko, who wrote a book about his abuse and subsequent struggles titled “Boy in the Mirror,” sued the diocese in 2020 but died at the age of 54, just three days after announcing his lawsuit.
“The cause of death was cirrhosis of the liver, the result of decades of using alcohol to cope with his childhood trauma,” Bartko’s lawyers said in a news release Monday.
“Jim’s first drink came at the age of 7, provided to him by Fr. Stephen Kiesle as a means of making Jim more vulnerable to Fr. Kiesle’s sexual advances,” according to the release.
The new law, SB447, took effect on Jan. 1 and allows the families of deceased victims of childhood sexual abuse and other crimes to sue for non-economic – or “pain and suffering” – damages on their behalf.
Under the previous law, those claims typically died when the victims passed away.
“Now it doesn’t matter what they die of, the case lives on no matter what the cause is,” said Bartko attorney Rick Simons.
“It also means the profit in stalling these cases and keeping it secret until late in life, the profit in making as many motions and delay tactics as possible hoping people will die is taken out of the equation,” Simons said.
A spokesperson for the diocese said Monday they haven’t been served with the suit yet and declined to comment.
An attorney for Kiesle, who is not named as a defendant in the suit, declined to comment, saying he had not yet seen the complaint.