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Abuse charges pain many members of large Atlanta church

Accused pastor built ministry of 25,000 members

TV Evangelist accused Three young men say they were 17 or 18 when Bishop Eddie Long (left) lured them into sexual relationships. TV Evangelist accused
Three young men say they were 17 or 18 when Bishop Eddie Long (left) lured them into sexual relationships.
By Errin Haines and Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / September 23, 2010

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ATLANTA — As a Christian author, gospel singer, and leader of one of the nation’s best-known black megachurches, Bishop Eddie Long finds a wide audience for messages such as marriage is “between one man and one woman.’’ Those words hung heavy yesterday over accusations that the television preacher, a married father of four, used jewelry, cars, and cash to lure three young men into sexual relationships.

Lawsuits filed Tuesday and yesterday say the young men were 17 or 18 at the time, enrolled in New Birth Missionary Baptist Church’s ministry for male teens.

A lawyer for Long, who writes books on heterosexual relationships and has strong ties to the family of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., adamantly denied the allegations. Few at Long’s 25,000-strong church will discuss the situation, and the grounds were quiet yesterday, save for a small group walking in prayer.

Those who will speak say they are supporting him.

Lance Robertson, who joined New Birth nearly two decades ago and has coached youth basketball there, said yesterday that members are hurting.

“I support and will stand with my bishop, but right now in the court of public opinion, it does not look good,’’ Robertson said. “This affects too many people. As the bishop goes, New Birth goes. He built New Birth.’’

B.J. Bernstein, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs, said she opened her investigation after getting a call from one of the men. The Associated Press normally does not name people who say they are victims of sexual impropriety, but Bernstein said that all three — Maurice Robinson, 20, and Anthony Flagg, 21, and Jamal Parris, 23 — have consented to making their identities public.

Bernstein said she did not trust local authorities to investigate the complaints.

“This is a really large church that’s incredibly politically powerful,’’ Bernstein said. “There are pictures of this guy with every politician around. With something this important, how can I trust that word didn’t get back to the bishop?’’

DeKalb County Sheriff Thomas Brown has been a member of New Birth for more than 15 years and sits on the advisory board for Long’s Longfellows Youth Academy. Brown said he would stand by the bishop and bristled at Bernstein’s suggestion that local authorities cannot be trusted.

“I take offense to that,’’ he said. “It does not merit a dignified response.’’

Bernstein said that her case hinges on the testimony of her three clients and that she does not have much physical evidence backing up her complaint. Long sent dozens of e-mails and phone calls to her clients, though they were not “overly sexual,’’ she said. Bernstein said she plans to subpoena records from Long that will show he traveled with the young men to New York, Las Vegas, New Zealand, and elsewhere.

Long has been silent since the lawsuits were filed, though he did have a press conference planned for today. But radio, Internet sites like Facebook and Twitter, and cable television news shows have been abuzz.

Atlanta radio host Frank Ski devoted much of his four-hour morning show to the issue. Ski, a 12-year member of New Birth, called the accusations painful and said he does not believe them.

Ski said he and his fellow church members are generally supportive of Long and are awaiting the outcome of the case.

Robertson, the church’s youth basketball coach, said he wants to hear Long respond to the accusations.

“The bishop has helped so many people,’’ he said. “It’s not uncommon for him to mentor young men and groom them to be productive members of society. The bishop’s heart has always been in the right place. But the New Birth family, we’re weeping. This is not a good day for New Birth.’’

Long, who was appointed pastor of New Birth in 1987, presides over a church that has athletes, politicians, and entertainers as members.

President George W. Bush and three former presidents visited the sprawling church in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia for the 2006 funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church has more than 25,000 members; a $50 million, 10,000-seat cathedral; and more than 40 ministries.

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