Friday, May 27, 2011
Some current and former members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church expressed relief Thursday that sexual misconduct lawsuits against the church and its prominent leader, Bishop Eddie Long, have been resolved.
Attorneys involved in the four lawsuits against Long, the LongFellows Youth Academy and the 25,000-member Lithonia megachurch said the case had been settled but declined to comment further. The case is expected to be dismissed "with prejudice" -- meaning the defendant cannot be sued by the plaintiffs again in the same alleged offense -- by close of business Friday, said Barbara Marschalk, who represents New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and LongFellows Youth Academy.
B.J. Bernstein, who represents the four men who sued Long, New Birth and the academy, also confirmed the lawsuits had been settled. The academy was named in three of the suits.
Long, pastor of the Lithonia megachurch, which has an international following, had denied the men's allegations through a spokesman shortly after they first became public in September and told his congregation he planned to "vigorously" fight them.
The accusations made against Long by Anthony Flagg, Spencer LeGrande, Jamal Parris and Maurice Robinson alleged that the bishop used his influence, trips, gifts and jobs to coerce them into sexual relations.
In one lawsuit, LeGrande said when he was 15 he and his mother were among the early members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte. When he was 16, he said, he went to Kenya with Long. Then when he was 17, they went on another trip to Kenya, and it was then that they had intimate relations, one of the suits alleged.
Rasheedah Oliver of DeKalb County, a member of New Birth for about a dozen years said the settlement means "we can move forward and continue to do what God would have us do."
Oliver said it doesn't bother her that she may never know the terms of the settlement. "I'm still steadfast," she said. "I know what he's done in my life, and I know what he has done in the lives of others."
Kamelya Hinson, a Web content editor who lives in Decatur, said the settlement has not shaken her faith.
"It doesn't make me think he's guilty or anything," she said. "I decided when this came out that I loved my pastor unconditionally. Even if he came out and grabbed the mike and said ‘I'm guilty,' it wouldn't change the way I feel about him. I wouldn't be angry like a lot of people are. You can't walk away after 15 years of being a member of a church."
Hinson said it doesn't bother her that she may never know whether the allegations are true. "He's done 1,000 good things," she said, "and he may or may not have done four really bad things."
Some, though, wish Long had done more to fight the accusations.
Former member Barbara Chumbler, who still visits New Birth from time to time, said she always believed the allegations were false, "although a settlement to me makes you look guilty."
She said she was disappointed the case was settled in mediation, although she added that she thought it was "an easy way to get it out of the way and get it over with."
Chumbler, who said she thinks Long is "like a lot of movie-star preachers, arrogant and a bit puffed up," said she still believes he is not guilty of the accusations.
New Birth issued a statement saying the decision was made "to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry."
"This resolution is the most reasonable road for everyone to travel," the statement continued.
Neither side would comment further and settlement terms were unknown.
According to Bernstein's office, neither she nor the plaintiffs would be available for an interview "on this matter, now or in the future. "
Thomas Eaton, a law professor at the University of Georgia, said two-thirds to three-fourths of all civil suits are resolved out of court “by settlements just like this.” He was not surprised that there would not be a public record of the terms of the settlement.
Mediation between the plaintiffs and Long, one of Atlanta's best-known religious leaders, began in February and have often been contentious. Exactly one month ago, DeKalb Judge Johnny Panos said a settlement was within "field goal range."
Panos acknowledged the discussions had been "benevolently intense," likening them to a tennis match, "with a lot of back and forth." Some of the mediation sessions lasted through the night.
Without a settlement, the case would have likely gone to trial this summer or fall.
After the charges first surfaced in September, Long vowed to "vigorously" defend himself against the charges.
"This thing I'm gonna fight," he said just days after the lawsuits surfaced.
Staff writer Michelle Shaw contributed to this article.