Lawsuit says leaders failed to protect girl from priest in ’80s

The Denver Post

September 2, 2022

By Elise Schmelzer

Leaders of the Archdiocese of Denver in the 1980s failed to protect an elementary school girl from a predatory priest even after they were warned the priest was sexually abusing children, a lawsuit filed against the Catholic archdiocese alleges.

For years, Father Marshall Gourley groped a girl when she was between the ages of 7 and 11 while she attended programs at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church, the lawsuit filed last week in Denver District Court alleges.

“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 states.

The lawsuit comes nearly two years after the completion of a years-long investigation spearheaded by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office into child sex abuse by priests in the state. The investigation named 52 abusive priests who assaulted at least 212 children between 1951 and 1999.

Though he’d been publicly accused of sexual abuse in the past, Gourley was not among the priests named in the attorney general’s investigation because that review only looked at priests supervised by the state’s three dioceses, not those serving under religious orders.

Gourley was ordained in the 1980s as a priest in the Coloradobased Theatine religious order. He was then assigned to the Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in the Archdiocese of Denver.

In the mid-1980s, a man warned the archdiocese that Gourley was abusing children, according to the lawsuit.

Attorney Paul Linnenburger, who filed the lawsuit, found the whistleblower’s sworn affidavit in a separate federal lawsuit filed in 1997 by a man who said Gourley sexually abused him as a teen between 1981 and 1984 at Our Lady of Guadalupe. The whistleblower testified that he told church officials about Gourley in the early 1980s, according to the lawsuit.

Both Gourley and the archdiocese in 1997 denied the lawsuit’s allegations and the suit was later dismissed because it was filed too many years after the alleged abuse.

The abuse of the young girl began about the same time the archdiocese was alerted to allegations against Gourley, the new lawsuit states. The Denver Post is not identifying the woman, now in her 40s, because she is a victim of alleged sexual assault.

The archdiocese did not remove Gourley from his position or restrict his access to children until the 1997 lawsuit was filed.

The girl attended the church with her grandmother and was often entrusted to its child care program. Gourley “openly caressed and fondled children” in connection with the church’s child care and educational programs, the lawsuit alleges.

The woman has since been diagnosed with posttraumatic stress disorder and suffered other physical and mental health issues as a consequence of the abuse, the lawsuit alleges.

“Father Gourley set her up for a lifetime of struggle, severe mental health impairments and future vulnerabilities,” the lawsuit states.

Attempts to reach Gourley on Wednesday were not successful.

Kevin Greaney, a spokesman for the archdiocese, declined to comment on the lawsuit because it had not been served to them.

The woman only recently realized Gourley’s actions were abuse, Linnenburger said.

“She’s been in pain for a long time. She blamed herself for a long time,” he said. “It takes decades to get to the point when you can even say it out loud. Then on top of that to get to a point when you have a basic understanding and feeling of agency that would allow you to do something about it. Most people never get there.”

The archdiocese, church leaders and leaders of the religious order Gourley belonged to should have acted when they learned the priest was accused of sexually abusing children, the lawsuit states. The defendants failed to report allegations to police and failed to act on their own to protect children, according to the lawsuit.

“Defendants’ actions exhibit a wanton and reckless disregard for the safety and welfare of parishioners and children in connection with members of the cloth,” the lawsuit states.

Elise Schmelzer: eschmelzer or @EliseSchmelzer