Lawsuit against Archdiocese of Denver among the first brought under new victim rights law

Denver Gazette

January 4, 2022

By Michael Karlik

A Colorado man has filed a lawsuit against the Archdiocese of Denver for the sexual abuse he reportedly suffered as a child, using a new state law that enables survivors to hold organizations liable for abuse decades in the past.

The legal action now pending in Denver District Court is one of the first to take advantage of a legal maneuver the General Assembly enacted last year to benefit childhood sex abuse victims who typically were barred from bringing lawsuits more than a few years beyond their assaults.

“As a person who survived years of sexual abuse at the hands of the powers that be, you end up as a broken person, a broken young adult, and a broken adult. It takes forever to realize, this isn’t my fault. This isn’t of my doing. This is what they did to us as victims,” said Brian Barzee of Colorado Springs.

Barzee, 58, alleges that he came into contact with Father James Moreno while Barzee was a student from 1978 to 1982 at St. Andrew’s Preparatory Seminary High School. During that time, Moreno reportedly took an interest in Barzee and would sexually exploit and abuse him “hundreds of times.”

“Father Moreno would often tell Mr. Barzee that if Mr. Barzee told anyone about the ongoing sexual abuse, Father Moreno would kick Mr. Barzee out of St. Andrew’s and out of the Catholic Church completely,” the lawsuit states. “Father Moreno would tell Mr. Barzee that Mr. Barzee’s father would not believe Mr. Barzee if he disclosed the abuse, and that Mr. Barzee’s own father would hate him if he were kicked out of the church.”

Moreno allegedly gave Barzee marijuana and alcohol to sedate him. Then, the priest would fondle him, force Barzee to perform sex acts on him or forcibly rape him. On one occasion, Barzee and “other unidentified priests” reportedly raped Barzee at the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, the Archdiocese’s towering structure on Colfax Avenue where Pope John Paul II once celebrated Mass.

A spokesperson for the Archdiocese said the organization was not aware of the lawsuit until Monday and would need time to review the allegations before providing a response.

Barzee is bringing his claim of sexual misconduct pursuant to Senate Bill 88, also known as the Child Sexual Abuse Accountability Act. The legislation opened a three-year window beginning on Jan. 1 for victims to bring lawsuits against their abusers or the institutions that harbored them.

The passage of SB 88 occurred roughly 15 years after the first media reports of Catholic clergy sex abuse in Colorado. At the time, state lawmakers attempted to pass a similar “lookback window” to get around the relatively strict statute of limitations. Generally, a survivor had six years after they turned 18 to sue their perpetrator and just two years to sue an organization.

Amid heavy lobbying from the Catholic Church and then-Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, as well as objections from government entities with youth programming, the legislation died.

The next serious effort at statute-of-limitations reform came in 2020, when a bipartisan group of lawmakers proposed a bill seeking only to eliminate the civil statute of limitations for child sex abuse going forward. Despite passing the House of Representatives nearly unanimously, one sponsor of the bill, Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, asked the Senate to kill the legislation because it failed to help victims of past abuse.

Advocates for SB 88 (and the companion measure enacted last year to abolish the civil statute of limitations in the future) pointed to the fact that children will often delay disclosure of their abuse until well into their adult lives. Although organizations like the Catholic Church worried about the level of documentation that would be available decades in the future to defend against past abuse claims, proponents maintained that it was important to reveal whether any predators remain in positions of trust with children.

“This is the most important law that’s been passed to protect sexual abuse in the cases of minors,” said Barzee. “Many of these priests have gone on to abuse again and again and again, and there’s no recourse other than this law.”

The legislation to reform the statute of limitations arose shortly after Attorney General Phil Weiser released an investigation into clergy abuse within the three divisions of the Catholic Church in Colorado: the Archdiocese of Denver and the dioceses of Colorado Springs and Pueblo. Although Senate Bill 88 was not a reaction to the findings, the report will likely be instrumental in any lawsuits that arise under the law.

Additional findings from the attorney general’s investigation noted that Moreno had sexually abused an anonymous male victim at St. Andrew’s between 1978 and 1980. The victim reported his abuse to the Archdiocese in 2019.

“It does not appear from Moreno’s file that the Denver Archdiocese had received any reports of Moreno engaging in sexual misconduct with children prior to his sexual abuse of Victim No. 1,” investigators wrote. The report noted that Moreno had entered medical retirement six years prior to the victim’s disclosure, and that the church had passed along the allegations to police.

Michael L. Nimmo, a partner with Denver Trial Lawyers who represents plaintiff, said that Barzee did report his abuse to the church. Some of the details in the attorney general’s report differed from Barzee’s allegations in his lawsuit, and it is not clear whether the anonymous victim was in fact Barzee.

The new law limits the amount a victim can recover from an organization to $500,000, although a judge may increase that amount to $1 million in cases where a lesser amount would be unfair given the circumstances of the case.

According to the research and advocacy group ChildUSA, 24 states, the District of Columbia and Guam have enacted a lookback window or similar provision for time-barred civil lawsuits involving child sex abuse.

There is a possibility Colorado’s version may not withstand judicial scrutiny. Lawmakers and witnesses before the General Assembly cautioned that the state Supreme Court could find it unconstitutional for defendants to have to answer for allegations previously barred under the statute of limitations. On the other hand, courts assume that actions of the legislature are constitutional unless found otherwise beyond a reasonable doubt.

Colorado’s law also requires that organizations being held liable must have known — or should have known — that an employee or activity posed a risk of sexual misconduct against a child.

Barzee’s lawsuit offers no allegations that the Archdiocese knew of the specific risk Moreno posed between 1978 and 1982, or that the Archdiocese knew of any other abuse by Moreno prior to the 2019 report. Instead, Barzee claims that the Archdiocese “should have known that Father Moreno had a propensity for the conduct that caused injury to the Plaintiff, and in particular, that he had a propensity to engage in the sexual abuse of children.”

Moreno is not named as a defendant.

Nimmo believed the complaint had provided an adequate level of detail, and said he would not have brought the lawsuit if the claims were insufficient. While he plans to file complaints on behalf of additional victims, he also will watch what the court does with Barzee’s case.

“From a lawyer’s perspective, it gives me the opportunity to legally go after an organization that’s abused children for 40-50 years,” Nimmo said. “It allows me to put my arm around my survivors and say, ‘Let’s go get ’em. They’re not gonna be able to get away with this any longer.'”