Lawsuit alleges Catholic Diocese of Savannah covered up sex abuse claims
By Shelia Poole
September 29, 2020
A lawsuit filed in state court in Chatham County against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Savannah and its presiding bishop claims that the diocese was aware of and covered up allegations of sexual abuse by one of its priests.
William Fred Baker Jr., the plaintiff in the case, alleges the diocese knew that a priest, Wayland Yoder Brown, who was later defrocked, sexually abused him and others while employed by the diocese. The abuse allegedly began when Baker was 10 years old and a student at St. James Catholic School in Savannah, where his mother still works, according to the lawsuit. The lawsuit mistakenly says he was 13.
Attorney Mark Tate, who represents Baker, who is now 42, said his client wanted to be named and lauded his “courage" in coming forward.
Baker, he said, wanted to encourage others to come forward and didn’t want “the church to hold anything over his head.”
Brown died in 2019 at the age 76. He was serving a 20-year prison sentence related to child sex abuse charges in the early 2000s.
The Most Rev. Stephen D. Parkes is named in the lawsuit in his capacity as the current bishop, although he was not in that position when the alleged abuse occurred. Parkes was named bishop in July.
Baker’s abuse allegedly began in August 1987 and lasted until May 1988, the lawsuit states. Brown allegedly cultivated a connection with Baker that included a mentoring and teacher and student relationship.
“As part of Brown’s illicit sexual encounters with plaintiff, he presented himself as a priest, engaging in religious prayer and counseling while wearing the vestments of the church and he threatened the plaintiff and the plaintiff’s family members with eternal condemnation, if plaintiff disclosed the sexual encounters," reads the lawsuit, which was filed on Sept. 23.
According to The Associated Press, the then-bishop learned of abuse allegations and failed to turn Brown over to authorities.
In a response to the filing, Parkes offered prayers for survivors and their families and said he was “deeply saddened to hear of another allegation of past abuse by the late Wayland Brown. On behalf of the people of the Diocese of Savannah, I wish to acknowledge the pain and destruction caused by acts of abuse, and convey my sorrow for the suffering endured by abuse victims.”
“Please know that we willingly participate in the legal process and that we continue to work with law enforcement to do everything in our power to protect children,” the statement said.
He urged those who have been victims of sexual abuse to contact the Diocese Abuse Reporting Line at 1-888-357-5330.
There are roughly 77,000 Catholics in the Savannah diocese, which covers 90 counties.
Tate said Baker’s life has been upended by the abuse he suffered as a youth.
“He’s a complete disaster,” said Tate. “His life has been a tragedy. A horror show.”
He said Baker has battled drug and alcohol abuse and he’s been arrested several times. His is currently in rehab in Charleston.
“That’s been his life,” he said.
Tate, whose firm has handled other sex abuse cases involving the Boy Scouts of America and religious institutions, said many people are afraid to come forward and he suspects there are more of Brown’s alleged victims who haven’t done so.
“The defense that the Catholic Church employs routinely is that when adults come forward, they want to embarrass, humiliate, intimidate and frighten the victims,” said Tate. “It reduces the willingness of victims who have yet to come forward to indeed come forward.”