ATLANTA — The prominent pastor of a 25,000-member megachurch near Atlanta denies allegations in lawsuits that he coerced two young men from the congregation into a sexual relationship, his attorney said.
Lawyers for the men, Maurice Robinson, 20, and Anthony Flagg, 21, filed the lawsuits Tuesday in DeKalb County Court against Bishop Eddie Long of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
The suits claim that Long used his "spiritual authority" to coerce church members "into engaging in sexual acts and relationships for his own personal sexual gratification."
The men were 17- and 18-year-old members of the church when they say Long, an outspoken critic of gay rights, abused his spiritual authority to seduce them with cars, money, clothes, jewelry, international trips and access to celebrities.
The pair's attorney, Brenda Joy "B.J." Bernstein, said that the plaintiffs were past the legal age of consent in Georgia, which is 16, when the alleged relationships started.
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Craig Gillen, Long's attorney, says the pastor "categorically denies the allegations."
"We find it unfortunate that these two young men would take this course of action," Gillen said late Tuesday after news of the lawsuit broke. He said Long had not yet been served with copies of the lawsuits.
The suits claim many of Long's alleged victims are known in the church as his "Spiritual Sons," though it notes that the congregation is "likely unaware" of what allegedly came with the title.
As teenagers, Robinson and Flagg joined one of the church's ministries, the tuition-based Longfellows Youth Academy. The court documents say the program "purports to train young men to love, live and lead as they proceed on their 'masculine journey,'" and "seeks to create committed men of God."
Allegations of sexual impropriety
Through the academy, the two young men formed closer relationships with Long, the documents say, but the nature of those relationships crossed the line into impropriety.
On a 2008 trip to New Zealand for Robinson's 19th birthday, the suit claims Long engaged in oral sex with him, and that after the getaway, Long "regularly engaged in sexual touching and other sexual acts" with him. It also claims Long regularly gave him cash, paid his college tuition and attempted to "engage in sexual relations" with Robinson during a May grief counseling session after the death of Robinson's best friend.
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Flagg's lawsuit states that Long arranged for him to move out of his mother's home so he could provide him with further spiritual guidance. The suit says Flagg's mother believed it would provide "stability and more opportunity to learn and grow with such an important spiritual mentor in her son's life."
But the lawsuit alleges that Long started sleeping in the same bed as Flagg, and "engaged in sexual massages" with him. It says Long "then increased the sexual contact" to include oral sex. Flagg also allegedly traveled with Long; the suit claims that Long and Flagg shared a bedroom on overnight trips and "engaged in intimate sexual contact" which included "kissing, massaging, masturbating ... and oral sexual contact."
Bernstein told reporters after the filing that Long "would use biblical stories to talk about how important it was to follow your leader," but that he also claimed "that the acts that he was engaged in were not necessarily meaning that he was a homosexual or that either of them was."
The claims run counter to the public persona of the married pastor.
The Spring 2007 issue of the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report" included a profile of Long as part of a larger report on black church leaders who "who have joined the historically white-dominated Christian Right movement against homosexuality and homosexuals."
When asked about a possible motive for the accusations, Gillen referred to a break-in at Long's office in June.
Bernstein said Robinson is indeed facing a criminal burglary charge in the June incident, but she noted that he returned the stolen items, which she said included an iPad and some jewelry. She said she expects Long and his attorneys to use the incident to paint the defendants as "bad" boys.
"And yet, as bad as it is, if it weren’t for that act, I don’t know if we would know about this [the alleged acts]. Because this young man exploded and he started to talk to his friends and realized he wasn’t the only one.
"That Bishop Long had other 'Spiritual Sons' who had this other relationship with him. And it made him angry and confused and it combusted, and lashing out at the bishop in the only way possible," she said.
Other possible investigations
Bernstein said she contacted the U.S. Attorney's Office earlier this month when she became aware of the young men's allegations. She did not know what action, if any, the agency planned to take.
Bernstein told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she has not contacted DeKalb County law enforcement because Long has ties to county officials.
Long is on the board of directors for the DeKalb Police Alliance, an organization which says on its website that it supports the work of all the peace officers in the county.
Orzy Theus, a spokesman for the DeKalb County district attorney's office, said he was not aware on Tuesday of an investigation in that office related to the allegations.
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church
Long was appointed pastor of New Birth in 1987. Then, the church had about 150 members. Less than four years later, the church had grown to more than 8,000 members. Athletes and entertainers claim membership at the church.
President George W. Bush and three former presidents visited the sprawling New Birth Missionary Baptist Church for the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Long introduced the speakers and the Rev. Bernice King, the Kings' younger daughter, delivered the eulogy. She is also a pastor there.
Bernstein said church members and employees covered up Long's alleged actions "Because they would do anything to protect the most powerful church in the southeast."
Long's church was among those named in 2007 in a Senate committee's investigation into a half-dozen Christian ministries over their financing.
Today, New Birth sits on 250 acres and has more than 25,000 members, a $50 million, 10,000-seat cathedral and more than 40 ministries, including the Longfellows Youth Academy.
Parishioners told Atlanta NBC affiliate WXIA-TV (on this page) that they still support Long and the church.
"We stand with our bishop. We love our bishop. And God is good," one man said, adding that parishioners are "always" praying for him.
"It breaks my heart when people come out with stories like this, and they focus on all of the negative, never on the positive," a female parishioner added.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.