Christ the King Chapel, at the Archdiocese of Denver campus, is pictured April 1, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)
Leaders in the Archdiocese of Denver neglected to protect a young girl from sexual abuse in the 1980s, despite being warned of the priest’s predatory nature, a lawsuit filed last week in Denver District Court alleges.
Father Marshall Gourley sexually abused a girl when she was between the ages of 7 and 11 years old while she attended church programming, and it resulted in a lifetime of trauma and struggle, the lawsuit alleges.
“When Fr. Gourley was abusing Plaintiff, Defendants knew, or should have known, that Fr. Marshall Gourley was unfit for the priesthood, specifically unfit to engage minors with the authority, control, respect, and reverence of a priest and representative of Defendants because, in part, they had received notice Fr. Gourley had committed acts of sexual abuse on children,” the lawsuit reads.
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A December 2020 report led by the Colorado attorney general’s office documented systemic child sexual abuse by priests and named 52 priests who abused children in the state between 1951 and 1999. Gourley was not identified in that report.
Gourley was ordained in 1982 as a Theatine priest and was then assigned to Our Lady of Guadalupe.
He was first publicly accused of sexual abuse in 1997 when a man filed a lawsuit alleging that Gourley assaulted him repeatedly between 1981 and 1984. That lawsuit ended up being dismissed because the survivor waited too long to file. The archdiocese removed Gourley from his position after the 1997 lawsuit.
Particularly within deeply devout communities like the Catholic Church, it’s really not that unusual for it to take decades (for survivors) to come forward.
– Paul Linnenburger, attorney
The new lawsuit alleges, however, that a “concerned citizen” brought concerns to the archdiocese in the mid-1980s, well before that first lawsuit. The church did not take any actions to remove Gourley then.
“The Archdiocese accused the concerned citizen of a lack of faith and worked to prevent the public and parishioners, like Plaintiff’s grandmother, from learning of the allegations of abuse against Fr. Gourley,” the lawsuit reads.
It was around this time that the young girl’s alleged abuse began, described as “openly” caressing and fondling children on church property as he provided child care and Sunday school activities, the lawsuit alleges.
The church’s inaction to prevent the abuse even with knowledge of it shows “wanton and reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of parishioners and children in connection with members of the cloth,” the lawsuit reads.
This abuse set the survivor up for “a lifetime of struggle, severe mental health impairments, and future vulnerability,” including post-traumatic stress disorder, the inability to hold a job and difficulty participating in society, the lawsuit says.
She is “only now beginning to understand the psychological impact Fr. Gourley’s sexual abuse has had on her life, only now beginning to comprehend and to address the harm caused (her) by the actions of all Defendants in authorizing and permitting Fr. Gourley to be in a position of access to Plaintiff based on their authority, which resulted in the sexual abuse,” the lawsuit reads.
“Particularly within deeply devout communities like the Catholic Church, it’s really not that unusual for it to take decades (for survivors) to come forward,” Paul Linnenburger, a plaintiff’s attorney, told Colorado Newsline. “It’s the norm for all sorts of reasons. Part of it is holding priests in such high regard in the community and the fear that that instills. Part of it is the expected manifestations of childhood trauma in the psyche, like a heavy amount of self blame. It’s to be expected that it takes years and years, and decades even, to accept that this happened and this may have been wrong.”
Linnenburger said he expects the lawsuit to go differently than the dismissed 1997 one for a variety of reasons, including a new law that took effect this year that altered statutes of limitations for survivors of child sexual abuse.
“We’re fairly comfortable that this case will survive a motion to dismiss on statute of limitations grounds,” he said. “We’re comfortable that we’re on solid ground there.”
A spokesperson for the Archdiocese of Denver said they have not yet been served the lawsuit.
An attorney who has worked with church abuse victims says that Gourley’s whereabouts are unknown.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 7 at 3:20 p.m. to include comments from the Archdiocese of Denver.
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