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Accused pastor crusaded against homosexuals

By John Blake, CNN
Bishop Eddie Long drew criticism for marching against gay marriage.
Bishop Eddie Long drew criticism for marching against gay marriage.
  • Four men accuse Bishop Eddie Long of sexual coercion
  • Long has built a reputation for ministering to young men
  • Long publicly condemned homosexuals
  • Pastor's spokesman says Long denies the allegations

Editor's note: CNN's John Blake first covered Bishop Eddie Long as a religion reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- As Bishop Eddie Long poked through a salad in his church office one summer day in 1999, he shot a weary look at a person ticking off his ministry's successes.

His Atlanta megachurch had already reached 25,000 members. He had been invited to the White House, built a global television ministry and drove around town in a luxury automobile.

But Long told the visitor who had come to write about him that the pressures of being a high-profile pastor could be brutal.

"You don't want any of this," he said in a raspy baritone as he shook his head. "You don't want any of this ..."

Video: Long: I'm not perfect, but I will fight
Video: Pastor facing sex claims
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Long didn't get more specific about those pressures.

Today, the 57-year-old minister, known for his public crusades against homosexuality, faces serious allegations.

On Tuesday, two young men who were members of Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church filed lawsuits claiming he used his position as their spiritual counselor to coerce them into sexual relationships.

The men -- Anthony Flagg, 21, and Maurice Robinson, 20 -- allege Long used a private spiritual ceremony to mark a "covenant" between them, with both becoming his "spiritual son."

Robinson, who claimed Long engaged in oral sex with him, said the pastor would cite Scripture to justify their relationship.

See PDF of lawsuit filed by Maurice Robinson

Flagg alleges that Long then used that relationship to take him on overnight trips where they shared a bedroom and engaged in kissing, masturbation and "oral sexual contact."

See PDF of lawsuit filed by Anthony Flagg

On Wednesday, a third lawsuit was brought on behalf of Jamal Parris, 23, who like the others was a teenager when he joined Long's church. The suit names the church and Long's LongFellows Youth Academy as defendants, and it alleges that Long engaged in sexual acts with Parris, traveled with him, and gave him money, trips and gifts.

On Friday, Spencer LeGrande, 22, filed suit alleging that when he was 17, he had a sexual relationship with the pastor, went on a trip to Africa with Long, went on shopping sprees together and that Long provided Ambien to the young man.

Read details of the fourth suit

"We categorically deny the allegations," Art Franklin, Long's spokesman, said in a written statement. "It is very unfortunate that someone has taken this course of action."

Franklin said "our law firm will be able to respond once attorneys have had an opportunity to review the lawsuit."

The men's lawyer, Brenda Joy (B.J.) Bernstein, would not make them available for comment.

Long's crusades against homosexuality

The allegations against Long run contrary to his public image.

He is a celebrity preacher in the black church world and a star in the evangelical world as well. His church is one of the largest in the country.

In the pulpit, Long seamlessly blends muscle and ministry.

He wears tight shirts that display his weight-lifter arms. He writes books such as "Gladiator, the Strength of a Man," that teach men how to be warriors for God. He says he has a special calling to reach out to men.

We categorically deny the allegations.
--Art Franklin, spokesman for Bishop Eddie Long

He's a married man who preaches about the sanctity of the union between a man and a woman. He denounces homosexuality. In 2004, he led a march in Atlanta against gay marriage. He once declared that his church had created a ministry that "delivered" people from homosexuality.

His public statements about gays and lesbians have helped reinforce homophobia in the black church, says Shayne Lee, a sociologist and author of "Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace."

"The homophobic atmosphere he helped perpetuate," Lee said, could "come back to possibly harm him."

Long's controversial ministry

Long has been the center of public controversy before.

In 2005, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that a charity Long created to help the poor and spread the Gospel had made him its biggest beneficiary.

An examination of the nonprofit's tax returns and other documents revealed that the charity provided him with at least a million dollars in salary over four years, and the use of a $1.4 million home and the $350,000 Bentley.

A frequent critic of black preachers (he once said they "major in storefront churches"), Long responded by saying he was a CEO of a global business who deserved his lifestyle.

The homophobic atmosphere he helped create could come back to possibly harm him.
--Shayne Lee, sociologist, on Bishop Eddie Long
  • Eddie Long
  • Georgia
  • Atlanta

"You've got to put me on a different scale than the little black preacher sitting over there that's supposed to be just getting by because the people are suffering," Long said, explaining the compensation he received from his charity.

In 2007, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, of the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to Long asking detailed questions about his financial operations. Long was one of six televangelists whom Grassley targeted.

After an initial flurry of publicity following Grassley's request, the investigation appeared to peter out.

Read more stories about faith on CNN's Belief Blog

In recent years, Long seemed to become more humble, says the Rev. Tim McDonald, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta.

In private talks, McDonald said, Long told him about the pressures of leading a megachurch. He said he no longer had as many close friendships and yearned to return to the more intimate relationships that McDonald seemed to have with his much smaller congregation.

"He said, 'Tim, I may have the numbers, but you have the love,' '' McDonald said.

God's 'scarred leader'

For all his outward confidence, Long also displayed a vulnerable side.

He built an intimate bond with many members of his church by talking about his private failings: his divorce from his first wife; being rejected by his father; and being fired from a job in corporate America.

He called himself God's "scarred leader."

He also became known for his generosity. He would give cars and money to strangers at church services. He built ministries to help the poor, AIDS patients and young people.

He talked proudly about his ability to reach young men. He called himself a "spiritual daddy" to many of the young men he mentored at New Birth.

He would pay the college tuition for some men, give business suits to others and play basketball and lift weights with his male ministers.

Once, he even boasted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that some mothers at New Birth trusted him enough to bring their wayward teenage boys to him for paddling.

"When I say bend over, even on Sunday, they bend over," he said, referring to the boys he paddled. "Why? Because they respect me. Because I first died for them ..."

Flagg and Robinson, however, said he used their relationships to instruct them, as "spiritual sons," to follow their "master."

They also say Long enticed them "with cars, clothes, jewelry, and electronics." Robinson claims the pastor paid for his college tuition.

In Flagg's suit, he claimed that when some young men found girlfriends, Long would attempt to block those relationships by "increased contact and spiritual talk" about "the covenant between the Spiritual Son and himself."

In addition to Long, the lawsuits by Flagg and Robinson name as defendants his church and a youth academy where Long was pastor and mentor. Both suits seek unspecified punitive damages on counts ranging from negligence to breach of fiduciary duty.

Lee, the sociologist who has written about Long, says he expects him to mount a fierce counterattack.

"He'll demonize the accusers," Lee said, "and couch it in terms of how the enemy Satan is trying to hurt the ministry."

CNN's Ed Lavandera contributed to this report.