Church says pastor didn't engage in sexual conduct

Atlanta-area megachurch pastor Eddie Long took four young men who claim he coerced them into sexual relationships on trips, but neither he nor any church employees had inappropriate sexual contact with the men, the church said in court filings.

The Lithonia-based New Birth Missionary Baptist Church said in Monday's filings that it "understands that Bishop Long often shared hotel rooms with members of the congregation" while traveling. But it neither admitted nor denied a series of specific allegations by the four who say Long used his spiritual authority to coerce them into sex.

The church did, however, say in a blanket statement that it "does not believe Bishop Long or any of its agents or employees engaged in the conduct alleged by the plaintiff." And it denied allegations that the church knew of Long's "sexually inappropriate conduct" and did nothing to warn or protect the plaintiffs.

The response comes a week after Long denied the allegations for the first time in a court filing, saying he was only a mentor to the men who sued him in DeKalb County State Court. He said in the filings that the men's claims are not true.

The men say Long abused his spiritual authority to lure them into trysts with cars, jewelry and cash when they were 17 and 18. Local and state authorities are not investigating because Georgia's age of consent is 16.

Their attorney, B.J. Bernstein, has said she doesn't have much physical evidence backing up the complaints. But she said 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 on Monday's filing.

In Long's response, he said in four separate documents that he often encouraged his church members to call him "daddy" and that some even called him "grandaddy," but he said the term was a sign of respect.

The pastor also said in the documents that he has 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 help.

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.