Denver Newsroom, Oct 21, 2020 / 04:00 am (CNA).- Gina Barthel, a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, has found that telling her story is an important part of her healing journey.
When she first shared her story with CNA last year, Barthel said it made her feel “light and free and so full of hope.”
“When the original story…went live, I was filled with joy. I mean, such joy that morning. I woke up, I high-fived Jesus in my bedroom, and I was like, ‘Jesus, we did it. We did it. We took this brave, courageous step.’”
In that story, Barthel shared that her home archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis had supported her after she was abused, and that the auxiliary, Bishop Andrew Cozzens, had been meeting with her personally on a monthly basis to make sure she was receiving the help she needed.
What Barthel did not anticipate was “the very unsettling response” of some fellow parishioners, and even relatives, who did not respond positively when she shared her story. She said some responses have been “distressing.”
In January, Barthel shared her story of abuse survival again, that time with her diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit. Her pastor at the time, Fr. Peter Richards, posted the newspaper’s story to the parish Facebook page, St. Michael’s Catholic Church in St. Michael, Minnesota, in February.
But to Barthel’s dismay, the parish took the story down just hours after it had been posted, reportedly after the parish received a complaint about it.
When Barthel saw the story go up on her parish Facebook page, and then come down again, she was hurt.
“What I find very heartbreaking is the original story…and the story that appeared in The Catholic Spirit, the entire goal and focus was my overwhelming, overarching theme that I wanted people to know was that of hope. That you can be wounded in the heart of the Church and find healing in the heart of the Church,” she said.
“And here I come forward, that message somehow got totally messed up into, ‘We don't want this known in our community. We don't want this known.’”
Barthel said she was not concerned so much with whether her story was shared specifically to her parish’s website or Facebook page. But once it had been shared and quickly removed, she was hurt, and she worried about the message that decision sent to abuse survivors.
“When that Facebook post was taken down, and then all the controversy that erupted about putting it back up, it made me very sad because that's not the Church that I know and love,” Barthel said.
“The Church that I know and love teaches that one, we don't shame the victims, and two, we don't keep their stories secret and we certainly don't try to silence victims, and that's what was happening, which was very distressing for me.”
Furthermore, she added, “there are people who are watching in the shadows who haven't come forward,” whether they’re clergy abuse victims or abuse victims in general.
“They're watching. How does our faith community treat somebody who was a survivor of a heinous crime? How does our faith community treat that person? How does our faith community reverence that person? How does our faith community treat that person who was wounded and may not always act perfectly? How do we treat that person and hold that person and love that person and walk with them in the midst of pain as they're continuing their healing journey?” she said. “People are watching that from the sidelines.”
Barthel said she heard from Fr. Richards that he regretted taking the post down, and that he had plans to repost her story. But he did not get the chance to do that before he was transferred to a new parish and moved in June.
In July, Fr. Brian Park took over as pastor of the parish, and still Barthel waited months before her story was reposted.
Eventually, on October 13, her story was reposted to the parish Facebook and website, accompanied by a statement dated October 9 from Archbishop Bernard Hebda.
“Your new pastor, Father Brian Park, inherited this situation. I have asked Father Park to help fulfill Father Richard’s promise to this survivor by reposting The Catholic Spirit article on the Saint Michael Catholic Church Facebook page and website. I would like to explain to you why I believe this is important,” Hebda said.
“When a priest makes a promise to a survivor of clergy abuse, I am of the opinion that we—as clergy—should do all in our power to make sure that the promise is kept, absent a particularly compelling reason to the contrary,” he said.
“The issues presented in this situation go well beyond the immediate question of reposting and well beyond your community. The real issues are about justice, accountability, compassion and healing. This is especially true for survivors of clergy sexual abuse, but can also affect those who have experienced abuse in other contexts,” he added.
Hebda added that in recent years the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has made “significant, meaningful and potentially long-lasting progress” in its response of compassion and support to survivors of clerical abuse.
“We must not regress. It is important for all of us in any survivor’s life, especially within the Church, to hold steadfast to the principled approaches now in place,” he said.
In his statement, Hebda noted that he had spoken to Fr. Richards, who had communicated that he had been planning on reposting the article and hosting some subsequent educational events about abuse before he was transferred from the parish.
“He has indicated to me that he regrets that he did not complete the educational plan and repost the article prior to his assignment to another parish this past summer,” Hebda said.
The archbishop added that the Church has an “affirmative duty….(to) support victim/survivors on their journeys to justice and healing. The opportunity for abuse survivors to tell their stories is universally acknowledged as an essential moment in the healing process. Going public often means for them that they are no longer subject to the manipulation of the abuser. This can also be an important moment of justice.”
Stories of abuse are shared “not out of vengeance, but truthfulness,” the archbishop noted, which can be a positive healing step for a whole community and can hold past abusers accountable for their actions.
Addressing the resistance met by some within the parish to posting Barthel’s story, Hebda asked parishioners to join him in “praying for a healing of any such division. Join me also in praying for all survivors of abuse, as well as for their family members and for those who support them in their healing and pursuit of justice. May Mary, Undoer of Knots, bring her Son’s love into the difficulties of our lives.”
Jim Thorp, communications manager for St. Michael’s Catholic Church, told CNA in an email that “we pray that Gina’s story brings hope and healing to many. We continue to pray for healing for Gina and all victims and survivors of abuse, as well as their families, communities and the Church as a whole.”
Fr. Park, through Thorp, declined to comment on why he waited for Archbishop Hebda’s letter before reposting Barthel’s story.
Of the nine comments on the parish Facebook post sharing Hebda’s letter and Barthel’s story, all were positive or supportive, as of October 20.
“Bishop Hebda and the pastor have done a right and courageous act. God bless them, Gina Barthel and all the victims of clergy abuse. They must be very beloved to Jesus,” Patricia Tinajero commented.
“So grateful for the Archbishop's words and for Gina's brave witness, both bringing light to this darkness. I am hopeful that our beautiful church family and leaders continue to recognize the importance of supporting and praying for all victims of abuse,” commented Katrina A. Witschen.
Bishop Andrew Cozzens told CNA that he was glad Barthel’s story was shared with her parish community, because in every parish community are survivors of abuse, whether that is abuse from clergy or other people.
“There are victims of abuse in every parish and so we always need to be attentive to that. And it's difficult at times to raise up that reality because nobody likes to talk about it,” Cozzens said.
“But it can be really helpful to the victims of abuse if we're willing to, when it's appropriate, raise up the reality of abuse so that people who have experienced it can come to healing. So when you have a story like Gina's, where there has been some healing, that can be helpful.”
Cozzens added that he hoped any abuse victims who have been following Barthel’s story see that “the Church is committed to standing by them, even if it takes a long time to do so, even if we still have a culture change that we have to go through. We are committed to standing by survivors and we hope they understand that.”
Dr. Jim Richter is an abuse survivor and survivor advocate who became friends with Barthel last year, after reading her story.
Richter told CNA that for abuse survivors, it is often, though not always, important for them to share their stories, and their local communities often seem like the safest and most comfortable place to do that.
“If you have a community, a family community, a civic community, or a parish community, I think that's a great place to explore doing that sharing because it's oftentimes been identified or it's associated with something that is comfortable, familiar, safe and often supportive.”
He added that while he understands stories of abuse can be difficult to hear, they can also help communities remember that they have survivors in their midst and that they need to remain vigilant against potential future abuse.
“Although this is 2020, and although it is difficult for folks to sometimes recognize that a crisis isn't over as quickly as they would like it to be, the better equipped we are to hear, and in some cases to be unpleasantly reminded of what has happened. That can really inform the work that as an individual and as a parish we're going to do moving forward,” he said.
“So I don't understand…the need to bury or ignore or kind of sidestep somebody's abuse experience.”
Barthel said that while she is grateful for all the support she has received thus far on the archdiocesan level, it was also meaningful to share her story with her local community.
“My everyday life happens in the local church. And I need to have the support of the local church. All victim/survivors need the support of their local community. To feel that I was being stripped of that by some (parish) members….who have not been supportive, made that very painful.”
Ultimately, Barthel said she is grateful for the support of her archdiocese, and now her parish, in sharing her story.
“To have Archbishop Hebda's voice is so important because I think it sends the right message, the healthy and hopeful message to the Church,” she said. She said she hopes other victim/survivors continue to find hope and encouragement in her story.
“I can only speak for my archdiocese, but at least in our archdiocese, if they do come forward, they can find the support that they need in the leadership of the church. And I think that's really important.”
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