ATLANTA (AP) — The megachurch pastor accused of luring four young men into sexual relationships categorically denied the allegations for the first time in a court filing Monday, saying he was only a mentor to the men who filed civil lawsuits against him.
Bishop Eddie Long has for weeks vowed he would fight the lawsuits in court, and promised in church sermons he would not let the legal troubles prevent him from doing its work. While his attorney has denied the allegations on his behalf, Long had not refuted them publicly until he filed his legal response. He said in the filing that each of the “claims of sexual misconduct are not true.”
The men, who were 17 and 18 at the time, say Long abused his spiritual authority to lure them into trysts with cars, jewelry and cash. Their attorney B.J. Bernstein said she doesn’t have much physical evidence backing up the complaints, but that she plans to subpoena records from Long that will show he traveled with the young men to New Zealand and elsewhere.
Bernstein declined to comment because she had not yet received the response.
Long, though, said in the four separate documents that he often encouraged his New Birth Missionary Church members to call him “daddy” and that some even called him “grandaddy,” but that the term was a sign of respect.
The bishop also said in the documents that he has long shared rooms with some of his church members, and that his parishioners often hug him. And while he admitted to giving the plaintiffs gifts, he said he often provided many members of his church with financial assistance.
Long became one of the nation’s most powerful church leaders over the past two decades, transforming a suburban Atlanta congregation of 150 into a powerhouse of 25,000 members that includes high-profile athletes, entertainers and politicians.
The bishop is a father of four who has been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage and his church has counseled gay members to become straight. But the TV preacher’s empire was threatened in September when the four men filed the lawsuits.
Two of the young men say he targeted them after they enrolled in the church’s LongFellows Youth Academy, a program that taught teens about sexual, physical and financial discipline. The other two – one of whom attended a satellite church in Charlotte, N.C. – have made similar claims.
Local and state authorities have declined to investigate because Georgia’s age of consent is 16. And Long, for his part, has promised in church sermons that he would not let his legal troubles prevent him or his church from doing its work.
“I feel like David against Goliath,” he said in a sermon in September. “But I got five rocks, and I haven’t thrown one yet.”