Just days after his wife announced plans to file for divorce, Bishop Eddie Long, the embattled pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church near Atlanta, told his congregation this morning that he was taking a leave of absence from his duties in the pulpit.
Long was defiant as ever when he announced his decision to a supportive audience."If you go out there, the news said I stepped down," Long said. " I haven't stepped down, I've actually stepped up."
"I'm still your pastor. You'll still receive my direction," Long said Sunday. "You've given me some weeks to take care of some family business."
Earlier this week, Long's wife, Vanessa Long, submitted divorce papers. On Friday, she withdrew her petition for divorce, but Saturday, her lawyer said that she was following through with her petition to end their marriage. "Mrs. Long continues to hope that this matter may be resolved expeditiously, harmoniously and fairly; however, she has determined that dismissal of her divorce petition is not appropriate at this time," Vanessa Long’s attorney said in a prepared statement issued late Friday.
Long, one of the country's most prominent megachurch pastors, has been at the center of controversy after several young men who used to attend New Birth sued him and accused him of sexually abusing them. The men said they were in their late teens when Long abused his spiritual authority to seduce them with cars, money, clothes, jewelry, international trips and access to celebrities.
Long denied the allegations, and later settled out of court with the accusers for an undisclosed amount. When the lawsuit first became public, Long was defiant and vowed not to leave the helm of his church. "In times of challenge, there are several things that come out. Your faith will be strengthened or weakened," he said to his congregants in October 2010. "My faith is being strengthened."
A New Birth official said that Long had not resigned as the church's senior pastor, but declined to say how long he would be on leave.
New Birth sits on 25 acres, and boasts a congregation of 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. 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.