On Sept. 21, news broke of lawsuits and allegations against Atlanta-area televangelist Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.
After initial claims of Long’s sexual coercion of two former church members, who were underage at the time, surfaced, even more accusations came to light. On Sept. 22, Jamaal Parris, 23, joined Anthony Flagg, 21, and Maurice Robinson, 20, in a civil suit against Long, New Birth and the LongFellows Youth Academy, Long’s mentoring program of which the plaintiffs were members.
The Sept. 24 announcement by Spencer LeGrande, 22, who said he was also involved with Long sexually, was even more disheartening to Long, his congregation and the entire black community. Accompanying LeGrande’s allegations were inappropriate photos of the bishop posing in fitted workout clothes, which LeGrande says were sent to him from Long.
Several details regarding this scandal are cut and dry. First, sexual activity between a minor and an adult is illegal and, as most would agree, immoral. As a representative of the Christian faith, if Long is found guilty of these charges, the faith of many other believers could be compromised. Second, as a leading figure of a church that reportedly opposes homosexuality and leader of a 2004 anti-gay march in Atlanta, Long’s image is clearly tainted by these claims and inquiries.
What aren’t as apparent or concrete are the arguments from both the plaintiffs and the defendant. Flagg, Robinson and Parris, who are all represented by attorney B.J. Bernstein, filed suits for punitive damages with charges “ranging from negligence to breach of fiduciary duty.” Their charges refer to Long’s alleged use of his position and influence to manipulate the then-minors, using money, trips and scriptural support, into having sex with him. Their attorney, Bernstein, who has made several appearances on CNN and MSNBC, confirmed the arguments and said, “I am ready to put them under oath.”
I, however, question Bernstein’s preparedness for court litigation on such a strong issue with the weak evidence she has put forth during questioning. Bernstein has offered “intensity, emotion and strong description,” as evidence of the allegations during interview. In a court system that relies on tangible, proven evidence in the decision making process, it is unlikely that emotions alone are enough to convict someone. While she has mentioned subpoenaing phone records showing “excessive phone calls” between the bishop and the young men, Bernstein’s claim that such an occurrence is inconceivable is also feeble.
Additionally, Long’s attorney, Craig Gillen, discredits the claims, calling them, “a case of retaliation and shakedown for money by men with some serious credibility issues.” Gillen makes a rather valid case questioning the integrity of the men-or one of them at least.
Overshadowed by the development of the current scandal is the June 2010 arrest of claimant Robinson for burglarizing New Birth out of anger toward Long. His claim against Long treads the line between truth and ulterior motive. The incidents between Long and Robinson earlier this year should not be ignored. On the other hand, Long and his legal team have yet to adequately and categorically deny these allegations. The emphasis, akin to court cases, has been placed on what has or hasn’t been proven. In Long’s Sept. 27 public address regarding the scandal, he vowed to fight the accusations and assured his congregation that he is, “not a perfect man but this thing [he is] going to fight.” The mega pastor failed to directly state his innocence, something many were probably hoping to hear. Long’s first public statement on the issue was an opportunity for him to convince those who were on the fence of his innocence. Instead, his subtlety may have cost him support.
More important and long-lasting than Long’s guilt or innocence are the effects this scandal will have on the black community. The gap between black male role models and their younger counterparts may widen; the growing number of African-Americans who are already unsure of their religion may increase and the issues of homosexuality and sexual child abuse will more than likely continue to go ignored. The question people should be asking themselves is not whether Bishop Eddie Long used his power to coerce young men into having sex with him. Instead, the question to ask is how we will collectively combat the underlying issues of child abuse, homosexuality, religion and individual worship.