Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) — In a statement read on a syndicated radio show Thursday, Atlanta-based megachurch pastor Eddie Long denied he had coerced young church members into sex, as alleged in three lawsuits filed against him.
“I have been through storms and my faith has always sustained me,” Long, pastor of the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church said in the statement, read by attorney Craig Gillen on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show.” “I am anxious to respond directly to these false allegations, and I will do so. However, my lawyers counseled patience at this time.”
“Let me be clear: The charges against me and New Birth are false,” the statement said. “I have devoted my life to helping others and these false allegations hurt me deeply, but my faith is strong and the truth will emerge.”
Long asked for patience “as we continue to categorically deny each and every one of these ugly charges” and requested prayers for himself, his family and the church. He said he will respond to his congregation from the pulpit on Sunday.
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“These false allegations are an attack on Bishop Long personally,” Gillen said. “They are an attack on New Birth, the entire church and all of its 25,000 good people who attend that church, and it’s an attack on the mentoring program that has helped thousands of young men. It is deeply, deeply unfortunate that these allegations have been made. They will be met.”
Gillen was interviewed by Roland Martin, a syndicated columnist and CNN political analyst, during Martin’s segment on the Joyner show. Gillen said he is to blame for Long’s failure to appear on the radio show as scheduled. Asked about a Thursday press conference that was also canceled, Gillen said he thought the matter was a misunderstanding, as he had never committed to a press conference.
Long spokesman Art Franklin said late Wednesday the appearances were canceled because of the third suit against Long, which was filed on Wednesday. But Gillen said it was not the third suit that made the difference.
“That’s my call,” he told Martin. “In assessing the situation, no lawyer likes to have his client in a situation where … charges are made and the lawyer doesn’t have control. This is about me, the lawyer, saying ‘Look,’ and my view finally prevailed so that’s why you’re getting second best here and getting it from me.”
The third lawsuit joined two that were filed on Tuesday, all of them in DeKalb County, Georgia. It was brought on behalf of Jamal Parris, now 23, who like the others was a teenager when he joined Long’s church.
The suit, which claims Long encouraged Parris to call him “Daddy,” also names the church and Long’s LongFellows Youth Academy as defendants.
Franklin told CNN on Wednesday the suits, which allege Long coerced young male church members into sex, are “a case of retaliation and a shakedown for money by men with some serious credibility issues.”
The new lawsuit gives intimate details about Parris and his alleged relationship with Long.
Parris joined New Birth in 2001, when he was 14. Long counseled Parris when the latter talked about his strained relationship with his father and got him a job as a summer camp counselor at the church, the suit states.
The suit, which like the others was filed by Atlanta attorney B.J. Bernstein, claims Long engaged in sexual acts with Parris. The young man eventually became a church employee and served as personal assistant to Long and traveled with him, the suit says. The pastor continued to engage in sexual activity with Parris and gave him money, trips and gifts, the suit says.
It says Parris left the church in late 2009, “disillusioned, confused and angry about his relationship with Defendant Long.” The bishop manipulated and deceived Parris into thinking that the acts were a “healthy component of his spiritual life,” the suit states.
The allegations are similar to those contained in the Tuesday suits, filed on behalf of Anthony Flagg, now 21, and Maurice Murray Robinson, now 20. All three contend the LongFellows Youth Academy and New Birth knew or should have known of Long’s behavior and that they failed to warn the young men.
The lawsuits describe LongFellows as an offshoot of New Birth. According to its website, the group’s vision is to “love, live and lead. We successfully meet the demanding needs of young men through a vigorous Rites of Passage Curriculum that helps young men realize their hidden potential and discover their masculine heart.”
Bernstein has alleged Long had a pattern of using his position as a spiritual authority and bishop to coerce young male members and employees of the church into sex. CNN was the first to report on the lawsuits.
But “this church and this bishop have been devoted to giving to the community and giving back to young men,” Gillen said Thursday.
Long is considered one of the nation’s top African-American preachers. His church was the site of Coretta Scott King’s 2006 funeral, attended by then-President George W. Bush and three former presidents. King was the widow of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
The three men claim Long took them on overnight trips to various locations within the United States and beyond, sharing a room and engaging in sexual contact with them, including massaging, masturbation and oral sex.
Bernstein, who represents Parris, Flagg and Robinson, said Wednesday that the youths’ accounts are “really strong.”
She said she has worked with sexual abuse victims and finds the two believable because of “the emotion. The intensity. The very strong description of what sexual acts occurred. … This is not just someone giving a vague thing, ‘Oh, yeah, one time he did this,’ or a couple of times.”
But Franklin told CNN’s “American Morning” on Wednesday that Robinson and Flagg “are not innocent victims” and that they have known “the wrong side of the law” before, including Robinson’s being charged with breaking into Long’s office in June to steal items, such as jewelry, that could be sold for cash. Gillen also noted the charges against Robinson, and said he is attempting to get tapes that have been turned over to the district attorney’s office.
“Let your viewers be the judge of their actions,” Franklin said.
In June, Robinson was arrested and charged with burglary in connection with a break-in at Long’s office. An iPhone, iPad and other items — more than $1,300 worth — were taken from the office, according to the police report. Bernstein said Wednesday that about $100,000 worth of items were taken, including black diamonds. She said the theft stemmed from Robinson’s anger at Long and was an attempt to retaliate against him.
She said that once Robinson began telling others about his experience with Long, “he realized he wasn’t the only one.” He was also angry about a May incident in which he sought comfort and solace from Long and instead was the target of a sexual advance. That “created a frenzy inside him,” she said.
Asked the motive for the suits, Gillen said, “Let me put it this way. What is the motive of someone putting a ski mask over their face and breaking into your office to steal things? Money.”
He said the suits, “without a single piece of corroborating evidence, (have) ignited a firestorm against this good man.”
–Art Franklin, pastor’s spokesman
Franklin told CNN’s John Roberts, “This is actually, John, a case of retaliation and a shakedown for money by men with some serious credibility issues trying to mount their own defense. This is something that went from 48 hours of contact with the attorney flinging outrageous demands to this dog-and-pony show we are seeing.”
He told CNN the church employs many young people, and numerous people travel with Long. On whether the two youths ever shared a room with Long, Franklin said, “That is one of the allegations that we learned through the media that’s being made by the attorneys and something our defense team will have to respond to.”
Gillen said the young men are taken on such trips to expose them to cultures and diversity they might not otherwise have the opportunity to experience.
Franklin said Long’s congregation had held a “spirit-filled worship service from a church family that loves its spiritual leader very much” on Tuesday night. He said Long is drawing strength from his family, the New Birth family and other supporters.
“Before rushing to any judgment on Bishop Long and this court of public opinion taking place right now, I really do hope you will look at these guys that are throwing the mud and consider the source,” he said Wednesday.
Asked how she can prove that sexual contact took place, Bernstein said Wednesday, “I am ready to put them under oath. Bishop Long can spend money on the best attorneys in this world, and they can question those young men, and then I’ll get to question the bishop, and then we’ll really see what’s going on.”
She said she will subpoena records of an “excessive number of phone calls” between Long and the young men, along with e-mails, credit card receipts and other items. Bernstein said she had alerted federal authorities about the situation.
Long frequently denounces homosexual behavior. A 2007 article in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s magazine called him “one of the most virulently homophobic black leaders in the religiously based anti-gay movement.”
The young men said the pastor, his church and church employees gave them cash and lavish gifts ranging from cars to college tuition. The suits also said that Long framed the sexual relationships as religious in nature.
“They were groomed for it, from 14 to 17 years old,” Bernstein said Wednesday. “He gets to know them and gets the trust, and then bit by bit — first it’s a hug. It’s just like any sexual predator. Or we’re sitting watching the football game, and you put your legs up on their lap … One of the boys described going to the gym, ‘Can you massage my neck?’ and then there’s another massage, and it just slowly breaks down. Ask any victim of sexual abuse. It is a progression.”
The suits allege that Long chose the plaintiffs to be his “Spiritual Sons,” a program that allegedly includes other young men from the church.
“Spiritual Sons are taken on public and private jets to U.S. and international destinations, housed in luxury hotels and given access to numerous celebrities including entertainment stars and politicians,” the suit alleges.
Flagg’s suit says that Long presided over a spiritual “covenant” ceremony between the two of them.
“It was essentially a marriage ceremony, with candles, exchange of jewelry and biblical quotes,” Bernstein said Tuesday. “The bishop [told] him ‘I will always have your back, and you will always have mine.’ ” Similar ceremonies were held with other so-called “Spiritual Sons,” without the congregation’s knowledge, the suits allege.
Robinson’s suit alleges that “Defendant Long would use Holy Scripture to discuss and justify the intimate relationship between himself and Plaintiff Robinson.”
The lawsuits are seeking unspecified amounts of punitive damages from Long on various counts, ranging from negligence to breach of fiduciary duty.
Bernstein said she warned Flagg and Robinson they would be “crucified” for making the allegations, “and they just said, ‘We have to do it, and we know there are others.’ “