A Buckhead attorney is suing Atlanta’s Roman Catholic archdiocese on behalf of an anonymous client allegedly sexually assaulted by a priest in the 1970s, in a case that claims church officials are continuing to cover up abuse cases.

The archdiocese recently released a list of clergy members it says were credibly accused of abuse — including the late Rev. John Douglas Edwards, who is the alleged abuser in the lawsuit. Attorney Darren Penn — who attends Buckhead’s Cathedral of Christ the King, the archdiocese’s mother church — says a goal of the lawsuit is to get a fuller picture of abuse cases.

Darren Penn, a Buckhead attorney who represents victims of alleged abuse. (Special)

“I don’t think we have a real list. We have a fake list,” or at least the “easy list” of accused clergy, most of them already dead, Penn said.

The suit claims the archdiocese and Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory “have conspired, continue to conspire, and have actively engaged in efforts to” cover up cases of sexual abuse by clergy.

Paul Wynn Grant, a spokesperson for the archdiocese, said that is not true. She noted that Edwards died over 20 years ago and that Gregory has been archbishop only since 2005.

“Here in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, we have had a zero tolerance policy with respect to clergy or any other person credibly accused of child sexual abuse,” Grant said. “The insinuation in the Doe lawsuit, that Archbishop Gregory and the Archdiocese of Atlanta would permit predator priests to remain in ministry to the people of God, is simply not true.”

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 20 in Cobb County Court — the archdiocese’s home county — on behalf of a “Philip Doe.” It alleges that Edwards molested the victim at least eight to 10 times between 1976 and 1978, mostly at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Church in Dalton. The suit names as defendants that church, Gregory and the archdiocese.

“As a result of the sexual abuse, Plaintiff has throughout his life suffered from a variety of emotional and psychological problems including but not limited to embarrassment, shame, anger and depression,” the lawsuit complaint says. “Plaintiff also experienced a loss of faith and spirituality, which were bedrocks of his life prior to the abuse.”

Edwards appeared on the list of credibly accused clergy that Gregory released in November. The list did not say where any of the alleged abuse occurred. Edwards was shown as serving in many locations as a priest, including at Christ the King in 1961 and at Brookhaven’s Our Lady of the Assumption from 1963 to 1965. Penn said the current lawsuit does not involve any claims of abuse at those churches, but added, “I don’t know the answer to that yet,” and he expects more evidence to come out as the lawsuit progresses.

A major motivation of his client, Penn said, was a belief that Gregory’s list is complete, and one of the demands is a court injunction requiring full disclosure of the identities of credibly accused clergy.

The lawsuit claims the defendants “actively concealed the identities of sexual predators and allowed them to remain in unsuspecting communities, exposed to innocent children, for decades.” And Penn said his client wants to answer the question, “Is information currently, actively today being withheld?”

One reason for that claim is Edwards’ history of assignments, with 14 postings and two leaves of absence in 28 years. Penn said that fits the pattern of known cover-ups in other church abuse cases, where predatory priests were moved around to get away from victims and accusers and took absences for internal counseling.

“All the signs are there, and it really looks like that’s what happened,” Penn said of Edwards’ record.

Penn is working on the case with Paul Mones, a California attorney who has been involved in prominent sexual abuse cases against such institutions as the Boy Scouts of America. Penn and Mones are preparing several other lawsuits against schools in the metro Atlanta area, including Buckhead, but have run into legal time limits on raising such complaints decades later. Penn has been an advocate of legislative attempts to extend or remove such limitations.

Penn said time limitations likely will be an argument in the current lawsuit. His legal argument is presenting the covering up of sexual abusers’ crimes as a “public nuisance” to which limitations do not apply.

When Gregory released the list of accused clergy last year, he said in a written statement, “Along with the publication of this information, I also renew my apology for the damage that young lives have suffered and the profound sorrow and anger that our families have endured. It is a response in faith that must accompany this listing.”

Gregory is now on an internal committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that is considering ways to address and implement any recommendations related to the abuse scandal that may come from a Vatican gathering in February.

Grant said the archdiocese runs a 24-hour hotline to take any reports of abuse by clergy or lay associates at 1-888-437-0764, and has information about counseling and child protection on its website at archatl.com.

“We reiterate that we in the Archdiocese of Atlanta abhor every instance of abuse,” Grant said. “Now, as in the past, we care deeply about the survivors, who deserve emotional, physical and spiritual healing, and we offer our pastoral resources and staff to assist them.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.