Steve is lifted by God’s love
Steve Burnette of Onalaska has always been in love with God. Understanding and learning about his Catholic Faith has helped Steve also trust God, his Father.Growing up in Milwaukee, the foundation in Faith was built by his parents for Steve and his younger sisters in the 1970s. “We sat in the front row. We always knew the pastor and all the priests,” remembers Steve. “Being Catholic was a big part of our identity.”
Steve was enthusiastic about his love for the Father, more so than most children his age in St. Francis, Wis. In his eighth-grade class, Steve enthusiastically shared his love for God with his religious education classmates.
“It went on and on for pages. I wanted to share it with everybody,” says Steve. “I didn’t realize I was in love with God because I didn’t think you could be in love with Him. It was more than my Catholic upbringing, and I just wanted to share my love with everyone.”
Steve often did not fit in. He talked fast and had a lot of energy—attributes that were not always appreciated by peers or his teachers. “I was a good kid and probably misunderstood,” Steve remembers.
The physical attacks from both boys and girls ranged from small pokes to beatings. Steve would not respond physically, and he learned that telling his parents was not the answer. Their defense of him just increased the abuse from his peers. So Steve kept quiet.
Finally, Steve found someone who liked him for who he was and helped him navigate the challenges of elementary school. As a new priest in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, James Arimond was trustworthy and offered a safe haven for Steve. “He was a great homilist and very charismatic,” says Steve. “I thought maybe I could go to him for help.”
I LOOK BACK AND SEE ALL THE LITTLE SIGNALS. I NOTICED GOD WAS CALLING ME BACK. ”
Friend Turns Fiend
The attention and support Arimond gave Steve were helpful, at first. But he was actually grooming Steve for a different kind of relationship. Beginning at age 12, Steve was sexually abused by the priest who had become a Burnette family friend. “It was unimaginable that someone who was part of our family could do something like that,” says Steve.
What began as a friendship that helped Steve feel appreciated transformed into secrecy, shame and confusion. Devastated by the betrayal, Steve, like so many victims of sexual abuse, descended into depression, self-mutilation and hovered on the brink of suicide.
Although he was confused and felt terrible about himself, Steve still loved God and trusted Him. God continued to call out to Steve and finally gave him the strength to tell Arimond, “No,” ending the abusive relationship in Steve’s senior year of high school.
Although the abuse by Arimond stopped, the damage went deep. Steve did not tell his family of Arimond’s abuse. He felt he couldn’t. Arimond was considered a part of the family, and his relationship with the family continued.
Relationships were challenging to Steve. In high school, his goal was to be invisible.
When he started college, the Church offered social opportunities for Steve. “I went to a retreat at the Newman Center in Milwaukee,” says Steve. “In high school, I was so terrified of being noticed. In college, I was nervous about going on the retreat.”
The retreat was a great experience and led Steve to create a bond with the other students. “I started coming out of my shell,” Steve remembers. “That was a big deal for me. For the first time in my life, I was part of a group. But at the same time, I didn’t like it, so I had to fade away. I felt like I was losing my identity again.”
The push and pull of closeness and retreat in relationships was Steve’s way to survive.
The second woman he dated in college was a friend of his sister and the only person who sensed something was wrong with Arimond, giving Steve the opportunity to share his experience with another person. “Kendra just knew,” says Steve. “She saw right through him. She never liked him.”
After becoming engaged, Steve attended church with Kendra, who was Lutheran. God was still reaching out a loving hand to Steve. Steve’s time with Kendra was short—she died of liver cancer before they could marry. Her love and concern for Steve gave him the courage to take another look at his abuse by Arimond.
Confronting the Evil
Two months after Kendra’s death in 1994, Steve confronted Arimond telling him, “What you did to me was wrong, and I no longer know you.” Then Steve told his parents the truth of his abuse by Arimond.
His family was horrified and supported their son and brother. Arimond faced other accusations of abuse and was placed on leave in 1990 and laicized in 2004.
Steve moved on with his life, marrying and starting a family. His internal wounds came to the surface during the marriage and tore apart his life.
As he had done in high school, Steve turned to self-mutilation as a way to release his pain. It didn’t work. “I felt like I didn’t have a soul,” remembers Steve. “I felt like a skeleton of a person.” He had stopped going to Mass, but God was still special to him.
“I still loved God and I still believed in Him,” says Steve. That love for the Father inspired him to begin a journey back to the Church. God sent Steve messages of love along the journey that are now visible to him.
Reaching Out for Help
Now living in La Crosse, he went to counseling at an office that was across the street from St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral. His therapist asked if the proximity to the church was difficult for Steve. It wasn’t.
He began looking for a church home. The first was a nondenominational Christian church. “It was all surface and no substance,” Steve says. Next was another modern Christian Church. It wasn’t the one for Steve. Then he attended a Lutheran church. “I didn’t hear one single song that I liked,” Steve says with a laugh.
Steve was working with kids, but the environment wasn’t right. One of his co-workers also worked at Catholic Charities, and Steve decided to apply for a job there. Catholic Charities was the perfect fit for Steve. “That was my first time working in a Catholic organization,” he says of the immediate connection.
Deacon Richard Sage was Steve’s supervisor at Catholic Charities. In meetings, Catholic Faith was part of the discussion, and Steve suddenly understood how Faith could be part of work and home and a loving relationship with God.
Steve could clearly hear God’s message of love and he responded, “You’ve been in love with me and I haven’t reciprocated. I’ve got to be that kind of dad; I’ve got to be that kind of man.”
His church search ended when he came to St. Patrick Parish in Onalaska. Steve’s soul settled and he knew he was home. “I had some amazing experiences at St. Patrick Parish, especially during Holy Week. Church became so important to me,” says Steve. “I joined the choir. I got my youngest boy baptized, and all the kids got all their sacraments that day. That was super special. I look back and see all the little signals. I noticed God was calling me back. My Faith started getting more and more important.”
A reconnection with the sacraments has made a huge difference to Steve’s sense of self and strengthened his loving relationship with God his Father. “I’m not good at being dishonest,” he says. “I don’t like people not being forgiven. Every time I go to confession, I learn more about myself and what God wants for me. There’s something mystical that goes on.”
Having Christ inside him after receiving the Eucharist has a similar effect. “There’s always a heavy sigh when I put the host in my mouth,” says Steve. “It’s become such a big deal to me because of my suffering. The more I read about God, the more I want to know.”
God’s work with Steve wasn’t done. He inspired Steve to return to college for graduate school and guided him to an even deeper relationship with his children.
God’s love did not eliminate the challenges in his life or erase the pain Steve continued to feel decades after the abuse. What changed was not being alone during the darker times.
“There were so many nights of being sad,” Steve says. “How do I deal with this? When I was younger, I hurt myself. Then God showed me how to deal with it. ‘Pray to Me.’”
Steve is joyful to be strong in his Faith and walk with God. He knows, though, that his journey will be more difficult unless he allows God to navigate.
“God is full of surprises,” says Steve. “I’ve learned to trust God completely at work. But in my personal life, I have so much trouble letting go. I am so afraid of losing people. I’m afraid I’m not good enough.”
Anxiety and worry about loss brought him down. “2022 was the dark night of my soul. I felt so stuck in the darkness. I was so blue and so down and so depressed, and that’s not like me,” Steve says. “That’s when I learned something about my Faith. It’s easy when things are good. I knew that God was trying to show me something. I realized all [my] attempts at control were wearing me out. I had to say to God, ‘I need you to do it for me. I give up. You win. Whatever you are telling me, God, it’s going to be good.’”
Steve recognizes that his Faith has evolved. His current love for his Father is no less passionate than his eighth-grade self, but it is now more nuanced.
“I think my Catholic Faith was more of an emotional faith until the last year or two,” says Steve. “God is now showing me that emotional faith isn’t enough and is teaching me to grow my Catholic Faith into a deep, heartfelt, covenantal Faith, one that does not depend on mood, feelings, situations, good times, times of desolation, etc. This Faith is there and is true and trusting no matter what. As He works with me and I follow His lead, it will not only allow me to trust Him completely, but it will help me in those relationships that I struggle with, but I desire to have.”
Opening his heart and mind to the Father deepens Steve’s loving relationship.
“I want to be that honest with God because He knows my heart,” Steve says. “As a person who had to grow up and protect himself by turning off, I like that I’m getting more comfortable being honest. He’s trying to let me be comfortable sharing my innermost being. To be okay with who you are seems like a silly little thing, but I want things to get better and better.”
Despite Arimond’s abuse, the moments of deep sadness and his struggle to find his way, Steve does not need to change his past.
“I want my story. I don’t want anybody else’s story,” says Steve. “This is my special journey. Everybody who comes along on this journey is special to me.”
Story by Mary Kay McPartlin
Photography by Michael Lieurance
Published in the May/June 2023 issue of Catholic Life Magazine