ATLANTA – The prominent pastor of a 25,000-member megachurch outside Atlanta denies allegations in a lawsuit that he coerced two young men from the congregation into a sexual relationship, his attorney said.
Lawyers for the men, now 20 and 21, say they filed the lawsuit Tuesday in DeKalb County Court against Bishop Eddie Long. The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they were victims of sexual impropriety.
President George W. Bush and three former presidents visited the sprawling New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia 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.
The men who filed the suit were 17- and 18-year-old members of the church when they say Long abused his spiritual authority to seduce them with cars, money, clothes, jewelry, international trips and access to celebrities.
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.
B.J. Bernstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said that when the relationships started, the plaintiffs were past the legal age of consent in Georgia, which is 16.
"Defendant Long has utilized his spiritual authority to coerce certain young male members ... into engaging in sexual acts and relationships for his own personal sexual gratification," the lawsuits read.
When asked about a possible motive for the accusations, Gillen referred to a break-in at Long's office in June.
Bernstein said one of the plaintiffs is facing a criminal burglary charge in the incident. She said the break-in was a way of lashing out at Long.
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.
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.
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.
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, a tuition-based program for young men 13 to 18.