Man sues Denver Archdiocese, former priests after he says he recovered repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse

DENVER (CO) [Janesville WI]

November 22, 2023

By Elizabeth Hernandez, The Denver Post

A 53-year-old man is suing the Archdiocese of Denver and two former Catholic priests, alleging he suffered extensive sexual abuse while attending Notre Dame Catholic Parish in Denver throughout the late 1970s and ’80s, but repressed those memories for decades.

The Colorado Supreme Court struck down a law earlier this year that created a window during which child sexual abuse survivors could file lawsuits over decades-old abuse allegations. But attorneys representing Michael Stano argue their case is an exception because Stano only recently remembered the repressed sexual abuse.

“It’s certainly rare,” attorney Charles Mendez said of the legal strategy in an interview with The Denver Post on Tuesday. “It’s been argued before both in Colorado and other states, but it is rare. The repression is a trauma response to what happens to you because it gets locked in an area of your brain.”

Stano filed the lawsuit Friday in Denver District Court.

The two priests named as defendants — James Moreno and Robert Whipkey — were among the 49 clergy members identified by the Colorado Attorney General’s Office in 2019 and 2020 as having been the subjects of substantiated claims of sexual abuse.

The lawsuit alleges Stano also was abused by a third priest, but The Post is not naming him because he isn’t a defendant in the case.

Stano is suing Moreno and Whipkey on sexual assault and battery claims, and the Denver Archdiocese on claims of negligence and fraudulent concealment.

Representatives of the Denver Archdiocese did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday, while Moreno and Whipkey could not be reached.

According to the lawsuit, Stano became an altar boy at Notre Dame Catholic Parish at age 6, at the request of the Catholic clergy he later would allege sexually abused him.

After he became an altar boy, Stano began acting out in school and at home, prompting his family to ask him what happened to him, according to the lawsuit. By the time he reached high school, Stano begged to attend a non-Catholic school, eventually graduating from Bear Creek High School, the lawsuit said.

“He did not want to continue a Catholic education for reasons he did not understand or express at the time,” Stano’s attorneys wrote.

Upon graduation, Stano left Colorado for California, where he lived for more than two decades. “He felt he needed to escape from something, though he did not know what it was,” the lawsuit read.

Stano’s adulthood was plagued by substance abuse, addiction problems and “violent sexual behaviors,” the lawsuit said, including “pimping himself out for sex” and appearing in “numerous devious pornographic videos and images.”

In 2019, Stano moved back to Colorado with his partner and began experiencing depression, severe anxiety, mood swings and “an extraordinary urge to flee Colorado,” the lawsuit said.

Stano and his partner moved in 2020 to Georgia, where his mental health continued to deteriorate, the lawsuit said. During an argument around this time, Stano’s partner asked him what he was hiding from and Stano responded, “I’m hiding from the church,” the lawsuit read.

“Over the next couple of weeks, Mr. Stano began to receive a flood of repressed memories,” the lawsuit read. “They came like flashes and were accompanied by foreign and extreme bodily sensations, including dreams, verbal ticks, convulsions and involuntary shaking. He could not stop them. The memories crashed into him. They included sharp picturesque scenes of locations in church buildings, faces, cars, smells, physical and emotional pain, and names.”

In the months following, Stano began remembering “violent, ritualistic rape by numerous priests” within the Denver Archdiocese, including Moreno and Whipkey, according to the lawsuit. Stano alleges the sexual abuse spanned 1979 to 1989.

Stano said he was taken to different locations including the library of St. Thomas Seminary and the Archdiocese’s Camp St. Malo in Allenspark, where he would be passed around to different priests and raped, the lawsuit alleged.

The abusers would tell Stano that if he told anyone what was happening, they would kill his family, the lawsuit alleged.

According to the Colorado Attorney General’s Office investigation, Moreno sexually assaulted a boy more than 60 times between 1978 and 1980. Moreno medically retired from the priesthood more than a decade ago, the report said. The former priest admitted to abusing his victim when confronted in 2019, the AG’s report said, and church officials at the time were trying to remove him from the priesthood. Moreno’s status is unclear at this point.

The state investigation found Whipkey allegedly walked around naked in front of four boys at a church camp in 1998. The Denver Archdiocese reported the allegation to the Teller County Department of Social Services at the time. Whipkey was sent to therapy for a year, but allowed to later continue ministry without restrictions. He later was arrested in Boulder on indecent exposure charges.

The lawsuit alleges the Denver Archdiocese knew the widespread problem of sexual abuse in their clergy and “actively concealed the abuse.”

“The conduct is really egregious and we’re hoping to do what we can to help him move to healing and getting justice,” Mendez said.