Abuse Suit against Priest Dismissed
Claim filed late in Gourley case, rules federal judge

By Mike McPhee and Katie Vogt
Denver Post
July 16, 1998

A federal judge Wednesday dropped a lawsuit alleging that the Rev. Marshall Gourley sexually abused a teenage parishioner in the early 1980s, ruling that Gourley's accuser waited too long to file the complaint.

U.S. District Court Judge Daniel B. Sparr issued a summary judgment in the $ 20 million lawsuit filed last September by John Ayon.

But Sparr did not rule on whether Gourley, then pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in northwest Denver, actually abused Ayon.

Gourley issued a statement Wednesday night, saying the decision was bittersweet.

"The decision by Judge Sparr brings with it a mix of emotions," Gourley said. "I am, of course, pleased with his ruling to dismiss the case against the archdiocese and me. Yet, I eagerly anticipated our day in court to prove these accusations to be fabricated and false."

Ayon's suit alleged that Gourley had sexually exploited him nearly 100 times over a four-year period in the early 1980s when Ayon went to Gourley for counseling. Ayon, who was 17 when the alleged abuse began, is now a Harvard-educated lawyer in San Diego.

"I'm not surprised" by the ruling, Ayon said in a telephone interview from his home. "There's been a lot of prejudice against me in this case. I look forward to my day in court. Gourley has not won anything except time."

Gourley, a popular priest and outspoken advocate for Hispanics, was relieved of his duties at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church after the lawsuit was filed.

It was not immediately clear Wednesday if, or when, he would return to the church.

But the ruling drew relief from his former parishioners, many of whom had seen Gourley last weekend at a church bazaar.

"He is a person that is admired in the community," said Martina Rivas, who was chatting with a friend about a block from the church Thursday. "He has helped a lot of people in this community. He is very much loved."

"Oh good," said Lisa Montoya when she heard the case had been dismissed. "It makes me happy. I didn't believe it anyway. He was really popular. When Mexico had that big earthquake, he went there himself to help. I was shocked that someone would say that about him in the first place."

Gourley is a member of the Catholic Theatine Order. Officials at the Archdiocese of Denver said the Theatine's regional provincial, or leader, would first decide whether the priest should remain in Denver. If Provincial Patrick Valdez wants Gourley to stay in the city, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput will decide where he should be assigned. Valdez was out of the country and couldn't be reached for comment Wednesday.

Sparr's ruling also cleared the archdiocese and Chaput, who had been named as defendants in their supervisory roles.

In a statement, Chaput said he was pleased with the ruling. "My sincere hope is that the hardship Father Gourley has endured as a result of these accusations will now begin to relent," he said. "I also want to assure you of my continued concern for Mr. Ayon, Father Gourley's accuser."

Ayon's attorney, Joyce Seelen, said she will appeal Sparr's ruling on the statute of limitations, or time a plaintiff has to file a suit after an alleged injury.

Seelen said Ayon didn't realize he had been injured until he sought therapy last year. But Sparr, in a 15-page ruling, listed 11 instances where Ayon realized he had been injured dating back to 1983.

Seelen said she also will appeal the ruling because it conflicts with Colorado Supreme Court rulings that say the constitutional separation of church and state does not prohibit claims from being made against religious organizations.

Archdiocese attorney Charles Goldberg disagreed.

"What's significant about this ruling is that a federal judge has taken a view different from the Colorado Supreme Court. Judge Sparr says the First Amendment precludes courts from examining whether or not a church was careful in selecting its priests, or in supervising them," he said. "This court has shown great respect for the position that religious organizations hold in our society."

Denver Post reporter Angela Cortez contributed to this report.


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