"These men dress as priests and conduct services that appear to be a Catholic Mass," said archdiocese attorney David Brown. "You cannot simply set up in whatever church and call yourself Roman Catholic. That's fraud."
The lawsuit, filed Monday, seeks an injunction against Capilla de la Fe, or Chapel of the Faith, churches, barring them from calling themselves Catholic. It is also asking for unspecified damages for donations worshippers gave in the belief the money would go to the Catholic Church.
It is thought to be the first lawsuit of its kind ever filed by the U.S. Catholic Church, Brown said.
The Capilla de la Fe churches would not allow reporters inside. A secretary at one location said only that the church was nondenominational.
The archdiocese argues that the congregants, often new to America, are duped into believing they are in a Roman Catholic church.
The Capilla de la Fe priests "raise considerable funds" selling religious items and holy objects, Brown said.
The archdiocese was so alarmed that it sent its own Hispanic priests to services to see what Capilla de la Fe priests were telling people. In July, Archbishop John Donoghue sent a letter to churches warning them about phony Spanish-speaking priests.
"For months now this group, `Capilla de la Fe,' has been creating confusion in the Hispanic community by pretending to be in communion with the Church," Donoghue wrote. "Unfortunately many of our good Hispanic people are confused by their pretense and they are leading many away from the Catholic Church."
The archdiocese said it first asked the chapels to stop using the phrase "Mision Catolica," or Catholic Mission, in their names. Capilla de la Fe agreed, but the archdiocese argued in court papers that the churches still employ deceptive practices.
In downtown Atlanta, Capilla de la Fe holds services at a "Stop Suffering Center," where pamphlets in Spanish tout the cure-all effects of holy water available with a donation.
Some Capilla de la Fe services are unlike anything offered at Roman Catholic parishes, including one focusing on "strong prayer to destroy witchcraft, demon-possession, nightmares, curses, envy, bad luck or spiritual problems."