‘Leaning on Jesus’ - What happens after an abuse survivor speaks?

A Pillar interview

In the summer of 2019, Minnesota Catholic Gina Barthel began talking publicly about a relationship of sexual abuse and coercion that had dramatically impacted her life. 

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Barthel shared that in 2005, a priest who was her spiritual director began to manipulate her, and eventually convinced her that God wanted her to have a sexual relationship with him — a relationship the priest said would be healing and sanctifying for both of them. Eventually, Barthel told the priest that relationship had to end, and she began to understand how abusive the relationship really was.

The priest — a member of a religious institute — was removed from ministry in 2007, when his religious order became aware of Barthel’s allegations against him. The religious institute offered Barthel financial assistance and therapy, and the priest was laicized voluntarily. Barthel said it took years to build up the courage to make a police report, and when she did, the statute of limitations made any prospective criminal prosecution impossible. 

Barthel also said it took her years to begin a path to healing — a path she says she is still walking now. But part of that healing was sharing her story. And two years after she first began talking publicly about her abuse, Barthel says she doesn’t regret speaking up. While speaking out came with a heavy cost, she says she has found healing in Jesus Christ. 

The Pillar talked with Gina Barthel about what she’s learned, and what other victim-survivors of abuse might learn, about what happens after speaking out against clerical sexual abuse.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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It has been almost two years now since you began talking publicly about the clerical sexual abuse you experienced. That wasn’t an easy thing to do then, I’m sure. What’s happened since?

Well some of the greatest blessings have been a lot of interior movement of greater freedom. Sharing my story in a public way for me — which I know and understand is not for everyone —  but for me was part of my healing journey that absolutely needed to take place, and I’m convinced of that now more than ever.

I’ve been able to move forward with much greater freedom. The burden of holding onto that secret — I didn't realize how much it was burdening me until now. I'm free of that and that's been awesome. 

The other thing that is a huge blessing is being now in contact with other survivors who are in various parts of their journey who wouldn't otherwise know that I even existed or that I could be a resource for them, or be a friend to them on their journey, if I hadn't shared my story publicly, and those are people from all across the world.

I have really come to recognize that no one can come close to understanding the depth of the trauma of what it's like to be abused by a clergy member, except for the people who have gone through it. There's a level of understanding, of empathy, of outrage, of care that just comes naturally from being the victim of a heinous crime within the Church. 

And so when I'm really frustrated, upset, or angry, the people who empathize the most with my circumstance and will be angry with me and will seek to find resolution are other survivors of clergy abuse. Likewise, I am able to empathize and understand and relate to somebody who's just starting their healing journey in a way that I certainly would not have been able to do, had I not had my own personal experience and my own personal trauma of clergy abuse. I mean, I'm embarrassed to admit how much I didn't understand and how much empathy I lacked about this whole clergy abuse crisis until it was my own personal experience.

Those do sound like blessings. But it hasn’t all been positive, I know. There’s been a cost to sharing your story as well, right?

So it came at great personal cost. And I won’t sugarcoat that. I lost my immediate family, with the exception of one of my brothers with whom I am in a relationship. He and his family have very much blessed me and been supportive of me. But I’m the youngest of seven children, and all my other siblings and their spouses and my nieces and nephews I’ve lost over this process. And that’s been horrible.

One thing I wish I had done differently was to prepare my family better for the step I was going to take. I didn’t prepare them, intentionally, because I was afraid they would try to talk me out of it. I was very confident it was the step the Lord was asking me to take, but, you know, hindsight is always 20/20, and I wish I had prepared them more, to let them process that I was going to be making this public.

But it's been especially hard when I’ve talked with other abuse survivors who aren’t sure whether to tell their story, and they ask about my family and I have to tell them this. And I reassure them that I know plenty of survivors who don’t have that story, who have been supported by their family.

I have also had to leave the parish where I have gone since I was baptized; the place where I received my sacraments, because of my experiences in the parish after telling my story.

Those are very real and very difficult consequences. But still, you say that talking about what happened to you was a positive thing. Why is that?

My personal growth, my personal gain, my personal freedom, my ability to no longer live in fear and secrecy far outweighs the negative consequences. The negative consequences are still very painful — deeply painful — but they're worth it to me. 

At times I hear from people, perhaps people who haven’t experienced this kind of abuse, who ask why abuse survivors continue to talk about their experiences. There are people who would say that the Church can’t move forward if we continue to revisit clerical abuse, or that continuing to discuss clerical abuse suggests that it happens more frequently than it actually does in the context of the Church. What would you say to that? 

My experience tells me, and history tells us, that if we don't make these things known and make them public and fight for justice, history will continue to repeat itself. 

Secrets are from the devil. Darkness is from the devil, and we need to bring the truth into the light. And that's where we find freedom.

And also, the trauma is so significant and has such a significant effect on our daily lives that it isn't something we're ever going to stop talking about. It would be denying a part of myself. It would be like asking someone to not talk about their children or asking somebody not to talk about the time their house burnt down.

When you have a significant life altering event, it's something we talk about. 

Why do women, after their children are 40, 50, 60 years old, still talk about the day they gave birth to those children? Because — for some — it's a traumatic event, but it's beautiful. The outcome is beautiful, but they've been through something really significant. 

Healing is ongoing, and talking about our trauma is part of the healing process. Also, being heard is a critical part of the healing process. I have found that the more I feel heard, believed, and acknowledged, the less I talk about my trauma. On the flip side, I have found that the more you try to silence my truth, the louder I will be in proclaiming it.  

My goal from day one was not just to focus on justice — not just to focus on calling out a priest who hurt me terribly — my goal from the beginning is to say that you can be wounded in the heart of the Church and still find healing in the heart of the Church. And the people who have been wounded so deeply — I mean, terribly, terribly deeply by the Church and by its members — we need hope, and we need to know that Jesus loves us, welcomes us, and that there’s a place for us within the Church. And that healing truly is possible.

What I have seen is that healing is often associated with perfection. I have never claimed to be perfect. I will only be perfect when I’m in heaven with Jesus. And I have never acted as though I have handled all this perfectly. 

Anyone that's close to me will tell you that I'm very quick to admit that I have not always handled this perfectly. And that's part of surviving trauma. It's part of being a sinner. It's part of being human. We're frail, weak, and we fall, but the beauty of the Church —  and of healthy relationships, healthy friendships, and healthy parishes — is that we take our wounded and we help them get back up on their feet again when they fall.

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Where have you found that healing?

My biggest source of healing has been Eucharistic adoration.

I will say it time and time and time again: I'm leaning into Jesus in the Eucharist. That's where I feel the most safe, it's where I feel the most home. 

That hasn't always been the case, you know, I was away from the Church for six years because I couldn't set foot into a Catholic church. But even now every day on my way home from work, I stop at an adoration chapel, and I just have that encounter with the Lord, and I am leaning on Jesus. 

And I share with him the burdens of that day, the burdens of being a survivor of trauma and the sorrow that I feel in my heart at times about what's happened with my family and with my parish. And Jesus understands that, you know? He was the one on the Cross, saying “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”  

And I can lean into that. And that's my source of strength.

At the same time, I am finding the truth and the promises of Jesus in Scripture. And the two go hand in hand for me: Jesus promises us time and time and time again in Scripture that he's faithful and that he is not going to abandon us. And there are times where I feel like he has abandoned me, but he hasn't. And I lean into those promises.

I have to pray against the spirits of bitterness and resentment daily. It’s very easy to hop on the “it’s not fair” train and be hyper-focused on justice when you’ve been wounded so deeply, but Jesus died on the Cross for my sins and that certainly wasn’t fair. I lean into him for the grace to forgive and keep moving forward while fighting the battles that arise with my time and energy -- All for his glory. 

And then, I have been extraordinarily blessed with friends, and priests and Bishop [Andrew] Cozzens, who have continued to walk with me and have really increased their support throughout the difficulties that arose after my going public and have made me really feel part of their family and an important part of their lives.

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What would you say now to someone who has experienced some kind of abuse in the Church and is apprehensive about speaking about their experiences?

Some people share their story in a public way but remain anonymous. And that’s a completely beautiful and acceptable approach. 

I would say to make sure that you have a good support system in place to be able to handle the storms that may come with sharing your story publicly.

And what can the Church do to better be able to receive the stories of abuse survivors?

Within the Church, I have noticed that there are various levels of understanding and experience about abuse itself and about trauma. And so I would encourage people within the Church to educate themselves — for all of us to educate ourselves — to be better able to receive what the survivors of clerical abuse have to say. 

There are plenty of resources out there. A plethora of resources — videos, books, online, resources that are free, that you don't have to pay a dime for — where you can research about trauma and the effect that it has on people, because the reality is many people have experienced some type of trauma. 

Not everybody has experienced clergy abuse. That's a very specific problem, but many people have experienced trauma. And we as a Church need to be able to know how to love, embrace, and walk with people who are currently experiencing a trauma or have experienced a trauma, and also how to prepare people for traumas that may come in the future.  

But I think to not educate ourselves is the biggest mistake that the Church has made, and many survivors have that experience. We know that silence is deadly. But people still experience, even now, that as they share a story of abuse, the Church doesn’t always know how to handle that — and that people who should know better how to receive these things, leaders in the Church, don’t always know better — and that has been very frustrating to me and to other survivors, and has made me sad, and made me angry. 

I would also say that an apology goes a long way. I don’t expect the Church to always handle things perfectly, but it is reasonable to expect that when we hurt each other and/or sin against each other that we acknowledge that and say we are sorry. I’ve had to do a lot of forgiving (and apologizing for my own mistakes and sins). It’s much easier to forgive when someone is actually saying they are sorry. 

I would also mention that there is a wide chasm from diocese to diocese with regard to their handling of abuse, and their competency in handling abuse. My archdiocese — the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis — has, I think, come a long way. And we still have a long way to go, but we’ve come a long way. And I have experienced support from Archbishop Hebda, and Bishop Cozzens, and the office of ministerial standards. But I am walking with some victims in other dioceses across the country who are being treated terribly, and their cases of abuse have been handled terribly. And that's deeply saddening to me.

At the same time, there are people in your own archdiocese who say they have not had as supportive an experience as you have had. So that variety seems to exist even within dioceses…

That’s correct. And I’m glad you said that, because I think every victim is looking for a different outcome, and justice looks different to all of us. And I think that's one of the challenges in the Church. And I think one of the ways the bishops would do well is to actually ask to sit down with victims of abuse, sit down and ask them, “What is your hope, or what does justice look like for you?”

Did I want my abuser to go to jail? Not really, because I didn't want my tax money going to feed him and shelter, you know? And I didn't think it would change him. But he is no longer a priest. My heart breaks for victims where the priest is still an active ministry.

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Is it possible for someone who has been hurt by the Church to find faith through the Church again?

Only by the grace of God. And I fully appreciate, understand and recognize why there are people who have been wounded by the Church who will never step foot in the Catholic Church again. And I think God has tremendous mercy for all of those souls and, and Jesus weeps for them. I mean, I often picture Jesus just weeping for all of us who have been wounded so deeply. And he, you know, he longs for us to be united to him and to be united to his Church.

I feel spiritually homeless, which is uncomfortable and lonely because we were created to be part of a faith community. Yet, even in the midst of that loneliness, I have come to learn that I always have a home in the Sacred Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. That’s where my soul finds joy, peace, and rest. It is a terrible tragedy that any member of the Body of Christ does not feel welcome, safe, or wanted in their faith community. We as a Church need to do better to make our parishes safe places for survivors of trauma.

But I think by God's grace, it's possible. And I know other survivors who are practicing Catholics and who are joyful practicing Catholics. 

In the end, Jesus always wins. When we get to heaven, he is going to say to each one of us, whether bishop, priest, parish staff member or a lay person in the pew, “What have you done for the least of these?” My prayer is that we will all be able to say, “I fought as hard as I could. I didn’t cower in fear or pride. I didn’t remain silent. I didn’t look the other way. I faced their painful reality and never abandoned or rejected one of your precious little ones.”