Long’s accusers--four young men who claim that the pastor used his influence as a religious leader and quoted from Scripture to coerce them into sexual relationships--had filed suits against the man of the cloth last September. The four men are all in their early twenties now, and say that the sexual encounters into which they were allegedly coerced took place when they were teenagers. Long’s accusers are 21-year-old Anthony Flagg, 22-year-old Spencer LeGrande, 23-year-old Jamal Parris, and 20-year-old Maurice Robinson.
Long initially responded to the claims by telling his followers that he was not perfect, and saying that he had "five stones" to use in his defense. The "five stones" image was part of Long’s comparison of himself to the Biblical hero David, who defeated a much larger opponent, Goliath, with a sling and stone.
In court, Long used no stones--but in early November his lawyers did file lengthy and detailed responses to each of the suits brought by the four young men claiming to be victims. "The plaintiff’s claims of sexual misconduct are not true" is a rebuttal common to all four responses, CNN reported. The responses then go on to address the particulars of each suit’s claims.
The young men’s’ suits claim that Long gave the youths money and gifts, and took them, individually, on trips. The suits allege that during those trips, Long induced them to have sexual encounters that included masturbation and oral sex. Because the young men were all of legal age, no criminal charges were filed. The suits allege, rather, that Long abused his position as a spiritual leader to coerce the youths into sex, and his court responses say the his "ministry at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church... places a special emphasis on outreach to men, reinforcing to men the importance of partnering with a ministry that will grow them spiritually and will help them develop the life skills needed to become successful in the workplace and teach them how to become entrepreneurs and leaders." Long denies any sexual encounters took place.
"Bishop Long admits that he mentors many young men from challenged backgrounds, who have often been without the benefit of a male role model," his responses state. "The mentor/mentee relationship between Bishop Long as mentor and the mentee is firmly grounded on expressed promises of honesty and truthfulness."
When the news of the allegations broke, some wondered whether Long’s outspokenness against gays might not be a smoke screen for a secret life in the closet. Washington Post writer Eugene Robinson recounted in a Sept. 28 story that was re-posted at the Argus Leader that Long has spoken out against GLBT equality and family parity, even leading a march through Atlanta to the grave of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 2004 in support of an anti-gay amendment to the Georgia Constitution. But Robinson also noted that the accounts of the four young men who say that Long coerced them are remarkably consistent with one another, detailing how Long took the youths on trips and claiming that the pastor cited Biblical authority in coaxing them to participate in gay sex.
Dismissing as "self-pitying" Long’s Sept. 26 sermon in which he compared himself to David facing down the giant Goliath, Robinson wrote, "Let’s see, on one side we have one of the most influential clerics in the country, the pastor of a suburban Atlanta megachurch that claims 25,000 members. On the other, we have four young men who claim in lawsuits that Long abused his authority to lure and coerce them into having sex with him. Unlike the bishop, as far as I know, none of the accusers is driven around in a Bentley. Or is constantly attended by a retinue of aides and bodyguards. Or cultivates first-name relationships with famous politicians, athletes and entertainers.
"I’m pretty sure the preacher has that whole David-Goliath thing backward," added Robinson.
Meantime, Atlanta residents were asking whether the cleric’s vociferous anti-gay stance was a cover for hypocritical behavior, reported CBS Atlanta.com on Sept. 27. "Why would anyone spend so much time and energy fighting gays? Why is it so important to them?" gay bookstore owner Philip Rafshoon queried. "Perhaps they have something they’re trying to hide."
A shopper at Rafshoon’s establishment cited the photos that Long took of himself in body-hugging clothing and posted online. "Why would you send those to people? Why would you take those and send those to people when you have 25,000 people in your congregation who believe in what you say and they hold you to this high moral standard?"
Disgrace and Debate
Comparisons to Ted Haggard, the Colorado Springs megachurch pastor who became embroiled in a gay sex and drugs scandal in 2006, inevitably came up. "[Haggard] said, ’Well, I’ve seen the light, and I went for treatment, and I prayed the gay out,’ or whatever that might be, and he still has his followers," Vasquez noted.
To be sure, Long was greeted enthusiastically by his supportive flock when he took to the pulpit on Sept. 26 to denounce the portrait of himself that had been painted in the media in the wake of the allegations. "There have been allegations and attacks made on me," Long told a cheering throng of nearly 10,000 congregants. "I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that’s being portrayed on the television. That’s not me. That is not me."
The allegations sparked larger questions: will America’s black churches, which have been stereotyped as staunchly homophobic, now be more probe to opening up a discussion about their gay leaders and members?
"Gay men and lesbians have always been present in the black church, actively engaged at that," noted Joshua Alton in a Sept. 23 Newsweek.com article. "The prevalence of gay men in black church choirs and bands, for example, is accepted but not widely discussed. The unspoken agreement is that gay men get to act as Seraphim, so long as they are willing to shout in agreement as they are being flagellated from the pulpit. It’s an indignity some gay men subject themselves to each and every Sunday. Why should they have to live this way?"
Alston went on to opine that the story would be touted and received much differently if Long’s supposed victims were young women.
But there are questions that lay beyond the ages or genders of the parties who were purportedly involved: issues such as the contrast between the sexual mores espoused publicly by a man of the cloth and his own private conduct, and the question of whether pressuring another person for sex from a position of authority is ever defensible.
Still, the primary focus of the story, as Alston pointed out, is the gay element. "Long’s predicament is bringing back to the surface the endless debate over whether or not homosexuality is fundamentally moral or acceptable, a debate that preachers like Long have prolonged with their bigoted teachings," Alston wrote, going on to wonder whether the suit would spark dialogue about the place of black GLBT people of faith within the church, or whether the larger issues would be ignored. Wrote Alston, "It’s about the black community on the whole and whether or not gay men and lesbians are going to be considered full citizens in it."
Alston recalled how another black pastor in Atlanta, Dennis Meredith, had gone from espousing anti-gay views to "preaching acceptance" once his own son came out as gay. Some parishioners left, rather than hear a message of love and acceptance for gays; they were replaced, however, by new congregants looking for a church that would accept and affirm them.
Another Georgia-based megachurch pastor, James Swilley, electrified the religious community when the twice-married father of four announced that he was gay, always had been, and had decided to own up to it--even if it cost him his congregation.
"I know a lot of straight people think that [sexual] orientation is a choice," Swilley told the media. "I want to tell you it is not." Swilley said that he had been up-front from the start with his wife of 21 years, Debye. After the two divorced, Debye encouraged Swilley to tell the truth, the pastor said.
Debye stood with Swilley not only as his wife, but also as the associate pastor of Church in the Now, located in Conyers, GA, which Swilley established a quarter-century ago, The Advocate reported on Oct. 29.
The recent rash of suicides by gay youths who were tormented at school for their sexuality provided the impetus for Swilley’s public disclosure, the pastor told Atlanta news station WSB-TV. As a father..." Swilley began, sounding choked up, before starting again. "Think about your 16, 17-year-old killing themselves. I thought somebody needed to say something."
Kilian Melloy reviews media, conducts interviews, and writes commentary for EDGEBoston, where he also serves as Assistant Arts Editor.