ATLANTA — The prominent pastor of a 25,000-member megachurch near 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.
Long has called for a national ban on same-sex marriage and his church counsels gay members to become straight. 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."
He also has released several gospel albums, authored books on relationships and spirituality, and hosts a weekly television program.
B.J. Bernstein, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said she opened her investigation after getting a call from one of the boys. She said her law office is now broadening the investigation.
"We are taking calls and we do believe, based on what the boys' statements are, that there are other victims," she said.
Although the relationships started when the plaintiffs were past the legal age of consent in Georgia – which is 16 – she said Long abused his "spiritual authority" to coerce her clients into engaging in sexual acts.
Bernstein also said that Bishop made an excessive number of phone calls and e-mails to her clients. She said most of the notes were not crude, but several of them asked the clients to send him pictures. She said she will subpoena Long for his records.
"It's an irrational number of contacts," she said.
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, but 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. She said she did not contact DeKalb County authorities because Long and his church have strong ties to county officials.
Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Atlanta, would not comment on whether federal prosecutors are investigating Long.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation spokesman John Bankhead said Wednesday his office wasn't investigating. And Orzy Theus of the DeKalb County District Attorney's office said Wednesday that county prosecutors do not plan to be involved.
"That's a civil matter. They were over the age of consent, that's not a criminal matter," said Theus.
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.
The New Birth campus was quiet Wednesday morning, with no unusual activity. Administrative staff referred media inquiries to Long's spokesman and people at the church declined to comment on the situation.