ST. PAUL, Minn. (CNS) — Gina Barthel went to a priest while in New York to find healing from childhood sexual abuse.

She got the opposite.

In 2004, when she was 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 H. Cozzens, who started meeting with her regularly in early 2014 and still does.

Today, she can smile broadly as she talks about her faith and the parish she belongs to, St. Michael in St. Michael, Minnesota, 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,” Barthel, 44, told The Catholic Spirit, the archdiocesan newspaper. “It’s the single most important thing in my life.”

Her strong faith drew her to join a religious order in 2003. It was there she met her abuser, then-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.

She reached out to get additional support from the archdiocese, but was not satisfied, she said. 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 at St. Michael, 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 chancery offices in St. Paul, and since then have had monthly meetings.

“He’s been always just gently leading me toward Jesus, but also providing that safe space,” she said.

“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.”

Barthel has started sharing her story with others, both one-on-one and in group settings as a guest speaker. She spoke at the Jan. 23 restorative justice conference organized by the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office. She is open to being a speaker at future events.

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.”

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Hrbacek is a photographer/reporter at The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.