ATLANTA – Lawsuits brought by four young men who accused a Georgia megachurch pastor of sexual misconduct have been resolved, attorneys for both sides said Thursday, bringing a quiet end to a blockbuster legal complaint that targeted a powerful national religious leader.
Both sides declined to discuss terms of the deal, other than to say the civil suits in state court would not go forward against Bishop Eddie Long, pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
The four young men had alleged Long abused his spiritual authority and coerced them into sexual relations with gifts including cars, cash and travel when they were 17. One suit also claimed Long had sexual contact with one of them during trips he took them on in the U.S. and abroad. Long denied the allegations, and federal and state authorities didn't investigate because Georgia's age of consent is 16.
Still, the scandal tainted the reputation of Long, who over two decades had transformed his suburban Atlanta congregation of 150 into a following of 25,000 members and an international televangelist empire that included athletes, entertainers and politicians. The 58-year-old husband and father of four has championed strong families and been an outspoken opponent of gay marriage.
Plaintiffs' attorney B.J. Bernstein said Thursday "we can confirm that the matter has been resolved" but would not elaborate. Phone calls to the young men were not returned.
Barbara Marschalk, an attorney for New Birth Missionary Baptist, confirmed the suits had been resolved and said they would likely be dismissed by Friday.
Church spokesman Art Franklin issued a statement late Thursday saying: "After a series of discussions, all parties involved have decided to resolve the civil cases out of court. This decision was made to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry."
"As is usually the case when civil lawsuits resolve out of court, we cannot discuss any details regarding the resolution or the resolution process, as they are confidential," Frank said in the statement. "This resolution is the most reasonable road for everyone to travel."
Much of Long's appeal was based on a prosperity gospel — featuring his own lavish lifestyle — and his macho appearance, accented by the muscle T-shirts he often wore in the pulpit.
The TV preacher's ministry was threatened in September when Spencer LeGrande, Jamal Parris, Maurice Robinson and Anthony Flagg sued Long in DeKalb County state court. The Associated Press does not generally identify people who claim they are victims of sexual abuse or misconduct, but Bernstein said the four consented to making their identities public.
Two of the men who brought suit alleged that Long groomed them for sexual relationships when they were enrolled in the church's LongFellows Youth Academy, a program that purportedly sought to guide teens through their "masculine journey" with lessons on financial discipline and sexual control. Two other young men — one of whom attended a satellite church in Charlotte, N.C. — made similar allegations.
Flagg, who enrolled at the academy at age 16, said Long chose him as a "spiritual son" after learning of the young man's challenges growing up without a father. Flagg moved into another minister's home after being arrested on an assault charge when he was 18. The lawsuit alleged Long would visit, crawl into bed with him and the two would engage in sexual acts.
Robinson said his mother enrolled him in the LongFellows program when he was 14. Long started lavishing attention on him the following year, and a church employee soon rewarded the teen with a Chevy Malibu, the lawsuit said. The two began engaging in sexual acts after an October 2008 trip to New Zealand.
Parris, who said his father had not been active in his life, said Long encouraged the teen to call him "Daddy" and later used biblical verses to justify the alleged abuse.
Long denied the allegations in court motions, saying that he often encouraged his flock to call him "daddy" as a term of respect. He acknowledged giving gifts to the plaintiffs, but said he often provided his church members with financial help. During church sermons, he turned to biblical terms to portray himself as an underdog.
Long has remained at the helm of New Birth since the allegations surfaced last year, vowing to fight the allegations.
"I feel like David against Goliath. But I got five rocks, and I haven't thrown one yet," Long said during his first sermon after the lawsuit was filed. He said that although he didn't claim to be perfect, "I am not the man that's being portrayed on the television."