Gina Barthel went to a priest while in New York to find healing from childhood sexual abuse. She got the opposite.
In 2004 at age 28, a priest from a religious order listened to her stories about being sexually abused from age 4 to 9, then took her down the same path.
As the abuse took place, she moved back to the Twin Cities. Thanks to another priest, who serves in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, she not only got out of the abusive relationship, but reported it and played a role in the abusive priest being removed from ministry.
Even so, her struggles continued, and she felt unable to continue practicing her Catholic faith. Finally, six years after reporting the abuse, she found a path to healing with the help of Auxiliary Bishop Andrew Cozzens, who started meeting with her regularly in January 2014 and still does.
Barthel will share her story at an upcoming conference on restorative justice and reconciliation Jan. 23 at Holiday Inn & Suites in Lake Elmo. It will feature Archbishop Bernard Hebda and Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who will talk about the settlement of civil charges against the archdiocese in 2015 and how the archdiocese has made changes to improve the handling of clergy sexual abuse.
Today, she can smile broadly as she talks about her faith and the parish she belongs to, St. Michael in St. Michael, the parish of her upbringing. She goes to Sunday Mass regularly again, and spends time in eucharistic adoration. The pastor of St. Michael, Father Peter Richards, has been “an excellent support” in both helping her return to the sacraments and encouraging her to report the abuse to police.
“My faith is very important to me,” said Barthel, 44. “It’s the single most important thing in my life.”
That passion drew her to join a religious order in 2003. It was there she met her abuser, Father Jim Montanaro, who belonged to a different order, the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. He became her spiritual director, and continued in that role after she left the order in 2005. They had affectionate nicknames for each other, and Barthel said she believes that from the beginning he was grooming her for later abuse.
In 2006, she moved back to Minnesota, where the priest continued to have contact with her, primarily over the phone. He made a visit in 2007 and started a sexual relationship with her. Feeling uncomfortable and confused, she decided later that year to talk about it with another priest, who made it clear the relationship was wrong and called Father Montanaro, who admitted to the abuse and eventually left the order. Barthel said he was never charged with a crime because she reported the abuse to civil authorities just one month after the statute of limitations had expired.
Barthel said she reached out to get additional support from the archdiocese, but was not satisfied. By that time, she had stepped away from the Church and was no longer going to Mass.
Things changed when she turned on her car radio Dec. 9, 2013. Relevant Radio 1330 was broadcasting Bishop Cozzens’ episcopal ordination at the Cathedral of St. Paul. She heard him speak during the Mass and felt she could talk to him about the clergy sexual abuse she had suffered.
“It was very clear in my heart: If anybody can help me, it’s going to be him,” she said. Though she had gotten help from the priest she first told of the abuse, and from Father Richards, she wanted support from someone higher up in the Church.
“All I wanted was to hear my bishop tell me that it (abuse) wasn’t my fault and that I wasn’t going to go to hell,” she said. “I was so afraid that I was going to lose my soul.”
She sent an email to Bishop Cozzens, and got a reply the same day. They met for the first time in January 2014 at the former archdiocesan chancery on Summit Avenue in St. Paul.
“He just said, ‘I want to know everything,’” Barthel said. “He just listened. I could tell that he believed me, that he just loved me, that he cared. Nothing about it felt fake. It just felt very authentic.”
What Barthel thought “was just going to be a one-time thing” turned into monthly meetings all the way to the present, with two meetings last month to help her through the Christmas season. They use safe environment standards the archdiocese has established in response to clergy sexual abuse. This has helped create an environment in which Barthel could share her story and find healing.
“He’s been always just gently leading me toward Jesus, but also providing that safe space,” she said. “I have no qualms or feel bad about ever being angry . … Whoever I feel angry at, I can freely say that and not feel like he’s going to think I’m a terrible person or a bad Catholic. You need that safe space to be able to say how much the pain of what happened to you … hurts, and how much it affects you.”
She said over the last 12 years, she has received therapy, been hospitalized for depression and anxiety, and even attempted suicide.
One important phrase Bishop Cozzens repeats to her, she said, is “Jesus understands.” She hears it when she tells him she can’t muster the courage to go to Mass because of her anxiety. Or when something at Mass triggers her and she leaves early because it’s too painful to stay. Or when she can’t go to confession during normally scheduled times because she is too afraid.
After talking to him about her difficulty in going to confession, she got a text from him one Sunday afternoon offering to hear her confession.
She accepted, but chided herself for needing special attention. She told him she thought it was a waste of his Sunday afternoon to hear the confession of someone who couldn’t go during a scheduled time “like every other normal person.”
But, she said, Bishop Cozzens told her he had been reading the Gospel passage that morning in which Jesus talked about leaving the 99 sheep to find the one that is apart from the rest. And, he told her he felt like he needed that day to go after the one sheep: her.
“I just burst into tears,” she said. “It was in that moment I experienced the personal love of God in a very profound way. I knew in that moment that God loved me and he cares about me so much that he’s going to reach out and just grab me and pull me back into himself. … It was like God reaching out to me and rescuing me.”
Barthel has started sharing her story with others, both one-on-one and in group settings as a guest speaker. Even though she has “always been terrified of public speaking,” she is driven by the desire for others to experience healing similar to hers. She spoke at a restorative justice event Jan. 23, and is open to being a speaker at future events.
“One of the greatest things I heard was when I told the mother superior (of the order she left) what happened. The first words off her lips were, ‘I believe you,’” Barthel said. “It was so consoling to be believed immediately and without question. This is something I try to echo when victims approach me with their stories.”
Barthel said she understands the anger victims of clergy sexual abuse feel toward the Church, but she hopes they can find the strength and courage to reclaim their Catholic faith.
“The thing that is the most important to me,” she said, “is I want people to know that you can be wounded in the heart of the Church and find healing in the heart of the Church.”
- Archdiocese to hold conference for clergy abuse survivors
- Are our kids safe?
- Wehmeyer survivor finds healing through faith