Fr. Stephen Kiesle
Fr. Stephen Kiesle
EUGENE — One of the architects of the University of Oregon’s athletic surge is back in Eugene. Jim Bartko admits he’s worse for wear but insists he’s on the mend. Not bad for almost 50 years of hell.

Bartko, 54, was a UO athletics administrator who raised funds for an Autzen Stadium redo, the construction of Matthew Knight Arena and that panoply of snazzy uniforms. He was so good at his job, so peppy and so likeable, that Fresno State University hired him as athletic director in 2015. Under his leadership, Bulldog football spun in just two years from a 1-11 record to 12-2 and a bowl victory. Bartko was hailed as a genius.

But amid his new high-pressure job, Bartko felt emotionally compelled to share a childhood secret he’d been keeping for more than four decades. A priest at St. Joseph Parish in Pinole, California, in the Oakland Diocese, had molested him 35 times over a course of two years. Father Stephen Kiesle was little Jimmy’s first basketball coach in the early 1970s and took advantage of the hero status that comes with the role.

The priest seemed like “a big teddy bear,” Bartko recalled.

The friendly Father Kiesle would invite the boys to attend Golden State Warriors games with him and afterward suggest they spend the night at the rectory. He’d offer altar wine to dampen the children’s resistance.

The sexual abuse, which Bartko suffered between the ages of 7 and 9, had many effects. His psyche absorbed the blame, which often happens when children get exploited.

“When you are 7, you don’t know whether what he is doing is right or wrong,” Bartko said. “You know it doesn’t feel right so you say it must be me.’”

With Jimmy keeping his painful secret, the Bartko family left Pinole and moved to Modesto. At one point, investigators who had received reports about Father Kiesle contacted the family and asked if Jimmy had experienced any problems. The teen said nothing happened because the truth was too painful, too embarrassing.

“For me right now, that is the biggest thing I have to get over,” said Bartko. “If I had said ‘Yes, Mom, he did do some funny things,’ I save maybe 250 kids.”

Bartko, a baseball player, went on to study at Washington State University and worked in the athletics office to pay his way through school. He landed a job at UO in 1988 and would stay there until 2013, rising to the post of deputy athletic director.

In an attempt to cover the misplaced guilt and shame of his childhood, Bartko set out to try to please everyone at all times. “I can’t handle people not being happy, people not smiling all the time.” It was an exhausting life.

“Work and people were my out instead of going into drugs,” he said. “Instead of being homeless or killing myself, I loved work and loved people.”

Bartko coached his own two children in all their sports. “I was not having those kids have a coach like I had.” His son is 22 and his daughter 17.

In Fresno, the frenzy of his life accelerated. Plagued by decades of insomnia, he sought medical help. His doctor told him: “No one just stops sleeping at age 7. Now what the hell happened?”

Bartko sensed his system would simply shut down if he did not unburden himself by telling his story. “Do I continue to say nothing, or do I say, ‘Thank God someone else knows now?’” Bartko asked himself.

In January 2016, he made a public statement and hoped coming clean would heal him and inspire other victims to do the same. Immediately he received about 300 letters of support.

But grace is inscrutable and not long after he spoke out he was fired from his beloved job and divorced by his beloved wife. At the grocery stores in Fresno, people would stare and whisper.

Making the announcement “was the right thing to do, but a lot of bad things happened,” he said.

Bartko, emotionally crushed, entered counseling in Arizona and southern California and returned to Eugene a year ago. He thinks of the town as the place where he came of age.

Friends from UO as well as O’Hara School and Marist, where his kids went, immediately offered support. They bring meals and listen. Bartko was always there for them — serving on boards and being kind — and now they are returning the favor.

“I don’t want to hurt the schools, the churches. I do want to help the people who maybe are too afraid to come forward,” Bartko said. “If I can’t help myself back when I was 7, I can help the kids now who need somebody to be a role model to say, ‘Talk about it. Get it off your chest.’”

If he could go back in time and meet his 7-year-old self, he’d have a message: “You are OK. You are OK. You made it. It’s not your fault. Take the guilt off.”