ATLANTA (AP) — The pastor of a nationally known Atlanta-area megachurch took other young men on trips as part of a mentoring program but stands by his denial of claims that he had sex with three of them, a lawyer for the religious leader said Thursday.
Bishop Eddie Long plans his first public response to the allegations Sunday during services at his 25,000-member church, attorney Craig Gillen said on the Tom Joyner Morning Show after Long canceled an interview with the nationally syndicated radio program.
In lawsuits filed this week, three men who were members of the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church claimed Long coerced them into sexual relations with gifts including cars, cash and travel when they were 17 or 18 years old. The sprawling church in suburban Lithonia counts politicians, celebrities and the county sheriff among its members and hosted four U.S. presidents during the 2006 funeral of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s widow, Coretta Scott King.
Long, a married father of four, built one of the country's best-known black megachurches by being an outspoken religious leader who campaigned against same-sex marriage. In 2004, he led a march with Bernice King to her father's Atlanta grave to support a national constitutional amendment to protect marriage "between one man and one woman."
One of the claims in the lawsuits is that Long had sexual contact with the young men, who were enrolled in New Birth's ministry for teen boys, during trips he took them on in the U.S. and abroad. Gillen said the travel was part of a mentoring program that other young men also participated in.
"The mentoring process involving travel is not exclusive to the three plaintiffs making these allegations," Gillen said.
Gillen also read a statement from Long in which the pastor said he's anxious to respond to the allegations but that his lawyer has advised him not to yet.
"Let me be clear. The charges against me and New Birth are false," Long's statement said.
Gillen also said the three making the allegations were motivated by money, adding that one of them is accused of breaking into Long's office.
In addition to canceling the radio show appearance, an expected Thursday news conference with Long was also called off.
Gillen said Long will speak directly about the allegations to his church congregation Sunday.
B.J. Bernstein, an attorney 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 claim they are victims of sexual impropriety, but Bernstein said all three — Maurice Robinson, 20, Anthony Flagg, 21, and Jamal Parris, 23 — have consented to making their identities public.
Bernstein said she didn't trust local authorities to investigate the claims.
"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. He said he would stand by the bishop and bristled at Bernstein's suggestion that local authorities couldn't be trusted.
"I take offense to that," he said. "It does not merit a dignified response."
Bernstein said that her case hinges on her three clients' testimony and that she doesn't have much physical evidence backing up her complaint. Long sent dozens of e-mails and phone calls to her clients, though they weren't "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 was appointed pastor of New Birth in 1987 and built it up into a complex on 250 acres with a $50 million, 10,000-seat cathedral and more than 40 ministries.
Their pastor has been silent and so are most at Long's 25,000-strong church. But 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 Wednesday that members were 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."