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'A lot of painful memories': Man who said he was abused by priest talks about why he's suing diocese

“This is part of my transition from seeing myself as a victim to seeing myself as a survivor," he said.

DENVER — After nearly three decades of seeing himself as a victim, a man who said he was sexually abused by a Denver Episcopal priest is now sharing his strength as a survivor.

His lawyers believe he is the first person to sue the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado under a new state law that creates a temporary window of time for survivors of child sexual abuse to file suit against responsible entities. He filed the lawsuit under the name John HA Doe. 9NEWS has chosen not to show his face.

“Thinking about what happened in that building is horrifying, and imagining what might have happened before or after I was abused is just gut-wrenching," he said. "A lot of painful memories."

He was an altar boy at St. Michael and All Angels' Episcopal Church. That church and community were central parts of his young life.

"Father McKenzie told me directly not to tell anybody, that nobody would understand our special relationship," he said. "It was made well known among everybody in the parish and all the church camp kids and counselors that he had taken a vow of celibacy and people regarded him as a saint partially because of that. So it just was so incongruous that a guy who had taken a vow of celibacy would do this."

The sexual abuse began when he was 16, in 1995.

RELATED: Former Episcopal priest sexually abused teen, lawsuit says

“It seems clear to me now that he chose me based on me confessing to him and him listening to my confession about various things that I felt bad about," he said. "He used those to prey on me.”

He said the abuse happened inside St. Michael's Church and in remote parts of Colorado, at church camp and at spiritual retreats. 

He recalls Rev. Jerry McKenzie giving him and other kids rolling paper for joints, and overseeing a lot of heavy alcohol use.

"All the red flags were going off, but you know, you're a kid, you don't know," he said. "You're told this person is a god figure on earth. They're speaking for God. What do you do with that as a kid?"

He said thinking about all the children and people who may have been abused before him and those who came after him, he felt motivated to talk publicly. 

"I've been told that I'm one of several victims, at least that they know of," he said. "Who are the ones they don't know of? And who are the ones who are also silenced by the bishop at the time?"

Today, he's in his 40s and still lives in the Denver area. He's a social worker, helping others in need. 

“I’ve dedicated my life to a life of service and trying to help people," he said. "To be able to help people who are vulnerable and having the worst days of their lives and giving a compassion that I wasn’t shown, is healing for me.”

He was once a vulnerable kid, one who trusted the religious leaders in his life. Now, he has a message for the church.

"Just own up to your mistakes. Do a better job of protecting vulnerable people. It is very, very hard for me to believe that the culture of secrecy and silence that facilitated this abuse has actually changed," he said. "They acknowledged that they caused a lot of harm and they have not been accountable for it, and that’s not OK. Part of this is me reclaiming that power for myself, not having to look at myself as a victim anymore.”

He said bringing this lawsuit and talking about his trauma is helping him transition from a victim to a survivor. 

"I am tired of hearing from the church that things need to stay quiet and we need to be discreet. I'm done with that. I want the facts to come out, not just for me but for other survivors," he said. "I would say to other survivors, it is not your fault and it's OK to speak up."

The Episcopal Diocese of Colorado acknowledged McKenzie was forced to resign his ministry in 2000 following allegations of sexual misconduct. The diocese would not detail the number of claims or when they happened.

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