- Associated Press - Thursday, September 23, 2010

ATLANTA (AP) — The pastor of a prominent megachurch accused by three young men of coercing them into sex took trips with other male proteges in his youth ministry as part of a mentoring effort, a lawyer for the religious leader said Thursday.

Bishop Eddie Long, who has denied the sex allegations, plans his first public response Sunday during services at his 25,000-member church, attorney Craig Gillen said on the “Tom Joyner Morning Show” after Bishop 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 Bishop Long pushed them into sexual relations when they were 17 or 18 years old with gifts including cars, cash and travel.

Bishop Long, who opposes same-sex marriage, built up the sprawling church in suburban Lithonia that counts politicians, celebrities and the county sheriff among its members and hosted four U.S. presidents during the 2006 funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow, Coretta Scott King.

One of the claims in the lawsuits is that Bishop 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 United States and abroad. Mr. 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,” Mr. Gillen said.

He also read a statement from Bishop Long in which the pastor, a married father of four, said he’s eager 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,” Bishop Long’s statement said.

Mr. Gillen also said the three making the allegations were motivated by money, adding that one of them is accused of breaking into Bishop Long’s office.

In addition to canceling the radio show appearance, an expected Thursday news conference with Bishop Long also was called off.

Mr. Gillen said Bishoip 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 Ms. Bernstein said all three — Maurice Robinson, 20, Anthony Flagg, 21, and Jamal Parris, 23 — have consented to making their identities public.

Ms. Bernstein said she didn’t trust local authorities to investigate the claims.

“This is a really large church that’s incredibly politically powerful,” Ms. 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 Bishop Long’s Longfellows Youth Academy. He said he would stand by the bishop and bristled at Ms. Bernstein’s suggestion that local authorities couldn’t be trusted.

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

Their pastor has been silent, and so are most at Bishop 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,” Mr. Robertson said. “This affects too many people. As the bishop goes, New Birth goes. He built New Birth.”

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

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

Bishop 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 church and more than 40 ministries. President George W. Bush and three former presidents attended the church’s 2006 funeral service for Coretta Scott King. Bishop Long introduced the speakers, and the Rev. Bernice King, the Kings’ younger daughter, delivered the eulogy. She is also a pastor there.

The church was among those named in 2007 in a Senate committee’s investigation into a half-dozen Christian ministries over their financing.

Bishop Long has called for a national ban on 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.”

This isn’t the first allegation against a religious leader who has crusaded against gay marriage. Ted Haggard left New Life Church of Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2006 after a male prostitute said Mr. Haggard had paid him for sex. Mr. Haggard denied the allegations but later admitted to “sexual immorality.” He launched a new church in June 2010.

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