Lawsuit: Diocese of Savannah covered up sex abuse allegations by former priest in 1980s

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A lawsuit filed against the Diocese of Savannah alleges officials knew about and covered up allegations that a Catholic priest sexually abused young students and failed to prevent the crimes more than 30 years ago.

The lawsuit was filed last week in Chatham County against the diocese and its current bishop, accusing the Catholic jurisdiction of conspiracy and fraud in mishandling alleged abuse by former priest Wayland Brown in the 1980s.

The priest, who died in 2019 while serving a 20-year prison sentence, was convicted of child sex abuse charges in the early 2000s. Pope John Paul II eventually dismissed him from the priesthood, and in 2018, he was convicted of additional sex crimes against children.

The plaintiff in the lawsuit joined several others in previous lawsuits alleging that he was molested by Brown when he was a 13-year-old student at St. James Catholic School in Savannah.

The lawsuit alleges the then-bishop learned of abuse allegations and failed to surrender Brown to authorities, protecting him from investigation. A 1987 internal memo from the diocese included in the lawsuit shows that despite his record, Brown was later placed at the school in Savannah where he would go on to molest the plaintiff.

A spokesperson for the diocese told news outlets that it had not been served the lawsuit and could not comment. The diocese did not immediately return a request from the Associated Press for comment.

Brown pleaded guilty in 2018 in Beaufort County to nine charges — six counts of criminal sexual conduct with a minor, second degree, and three counts of criminal sexual conduct with a minor, first degree. The indictment charged sexual battery in several locations, including St. Anthony’s Catholic Church in Hardeeville, the Savannah National Wildlife Refuge and the intersection of Stiney and Morgan roads in Hardeeville in the area surrounded by railroad tracks and depot area.

Both Savannah victims were child parishioners at St. James Catholic Church, where Brown was associate pastor in 1987-88.

In 2016, the diocese paid $4.5 million to settle a lawsuit by a man who said Brown sexually abused him. Georgia authorities could not conduct a criminal investigation at the time because of the statute of limitations. In 2018, a list of 16 accused priest child abuser names was released by the Diocese of Savannah by then-bishop Gregory Hartmayer. The released list included Brown among the 16.

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