The official, who awarded the infamous "ghost goal" in the Championship two years ago, allowed Dirk Kuyt's opening strike to count after ruling Michael Turner had taken a free-kick when he appeared to roll it back to goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
Darren Bent hit back with a penalty and a header either side of half-time before Gerrard nodded in Fernando Torres' near-post cross to salvage a point.
Reds manager Roy Hodgson had stressed his side should not be judged by the second-string's Carling Cup defeat to League Two side Northampton in midweek but his first XI were almost as bad.
They were gifted one goal but managed to create little themselves and were again indebted to their inspirational captain for only briefly dragging them out of mediocrity.
Torres also played his part early on but cut an increasingly frustrated figure as Liverpool seemed to go backwards.
Only two minutes in he had the ball in the net after controlling Gerrard's free-kick on his chest and volleying in only to be denied by a very marginal offside decision.
His next intervention three minutes later had far more impact, although he was given a huge helping hand by Attwell.
When Sunderland were awarded a free-kick 10 yards inside their half Turner tapped the ball back towards Simon Mignolet, presumably intending for the goalkeeper to take it.
Torres turned to look at Attwell, who was in charge when Reading 'scored' at Watford on September 20 2008 despite the ball going yards wide of the post, who immediately waved play on.
Mignolet stood on the edge of his penalty area raising one arm aloft in the vain hope Torres would take pity but the 26-year-old was not in a sympathetic mood and rolled a pass for Kuyt, back in the side after a quicker-than-expected recovery from a shoulder injury, to slide a shot into the net.
Turner's challenge on the Spaniard in the 17th minute could have resulted in a penalty but, considering his earlier decision, the 27-year-old Attwell ignored appeals.
Everything seemed to be going in Liverpool's favour but, as been the case on several occasions already this season, they conspired to shoot themselves in the foot.
Gerrard's weak header back towards his own goal would have put Bent in had Jose Reina not dived feet-first to clear the danger.
If it was a warning to tighten up the Reds did not heed it as Attwell was called into action again in the 25th minute, although this time his decision was a little more straightforward as Ahmed Elmohamady's cross hit Christian Poulsen's arm.
Bent's penalty went under the Reina's body.
Things went from bad to worse as Paul Konchesky had to be replaced by makeshift left-back Daniel Agger before half-time and then Sunderland went ahead just after the interval.
Nedum Onuoha's right-wing cross was a good one but Glen Johnson was caught ball-watching the wrong side of Bent as the striker nipped in at the far post to head his side in front.
Even the usually reliable Reina was rattled, scuffing one clearance straight at Jordan Henderson who almost punished the error with a long-range shot.
Torres' temper was bubbling over and after diving in at Onuoha he was fortunate to escape with only a yellow card after visibly showing dissent to Attwell.
Hodgson made a positive substitution by replacing defensive midfielder Poulsen with striker David Ngog, bringing Meireles inside and moving Kuyt out to the right.
But with the game seemingly drifting away from them, Liverpool's two star players dragged them back into the contest midway through the half.
Torres beat Bardsley close to the right touchline and swung over an inviting cross which Gerrard headed in at the near post.
The England midfielder was booked for catching Danny Welbeck in the face with his arm as they challenged for the ball as the atmosphere began to heat up.
Liverpool, at least, were now showing some desire and Ngog forced a low save out of Mignolet, Kuyt fired just wide, Turner cleared off the line from Ngog and Agger headed wide.
But the result did little to lift the growing feeling of discontent in and around the club and sit-in protest against unpopular American owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett at the final whistle only highlighted problems yet to be overcome.