Documents were filed late Friday in DeKalb County State Court confirming the sexual misconduct case against Bishop Eddie Long has been dismissed "with prejudice," one day after it was revealed a settlement had been reached.
Reaction to the settlements by current and former members of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church was mixed though most were relieved the case had been resolved.
Long, pastor of the Lithonia megachurch, which has an international following, ha 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 mic 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.
The Roman Catholic Church isn't the only religious institution that has failed to respond directly and transparently to allegations of sexual impropriety.
Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of the Georgia-based New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, has just settled out of court with the four young men who alleged Long had sexually coerced them. And neither side is talking.
After the allegations surfaced last September, Long said he would “vigorously” defend himself against charges that he used a combination of spiritual authority and material enticements (cars, jewelry, cash) to curry sexual favors from the men, who were 17 and 18 at the time.
Not any more, at least not in court.
And Long’s accusers won’t be talking either. B. J. Bernstein, their lawyer, said yesterday that they would not discuss the matter “now or in the future.”
Over the last few decades, observers of the Roman Catholic Church sex scandal have rightly argued for transparency — for taking sexual assault cases out of the hands of the secretive old boys network of priests and bishops and bringing them out into the open, including into the courts.
Why? So justice could be done, and so Catholic parents might come to feel safe once again entrusting their children to the care of priests.
American Zen centers have dealt in recent years with their own contagion of sexual abuse allegations against Zen masters, and they have done so with remarkable candor and transparency.
In December, a group of Zen leaders wrote a series of letters calling for the dismissal of Eido Tai Shimano from his position as abbot of the New York-based Zen Studies Society.
In her letter concerning the this case, Joan Halifax, founding abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, did not pull any punches. She called Shimano an “embarrassment to Buddhism” and his behavior, brought to national attention last August in the New York Times, “abusive, gender-biased, predatory, misogynistic.”
But she also compared the situation to “family members in a dysfunctional family,” adding that the wider Buddhist community was “complicit in some way . . . as we all knew what was going on."
To be fair to Long, the case against Eido Shimano was clearer cut (recently unsealed papers at the University of Hawaii at Manoa detail decades of sexual liasons with his female students), as are many of the cases against pedophile priests. But the reason we can say that is because the evidence has come out.
In Catholicism’s sex scandals, critics have commonly criticized structural issues. Rather than blaming this priest or that, they have blamed the Catholic practice of clerical celibacy. Or, in the case of a recent study by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, they blamed the permissiveness of the 1960s.
So I have to wonder whether there are structural issues in the Long case also. As names such as Swaggart, Bakker and Haggard remind us, he is not the first megachurch pastor accused of sexual abuse.
The Protestant Reformation was in part about getting away from the authority of priests and popes. Why approach God indirectly when you can do so directly, Protestants asked. Why not read the Bible for yourself?
Unfortunately, there isn't much evidence that many American Protestants today are reading scripture with frequency or care. On a battery of 12 questions about Christianity and the Bible, American Protestants got 6.5 questions right on average, for a score of 54%. Many must rely on pastors like Long to tell them what to do and think.
In her letter, Halifax discussed the dangers of “being under the spell of a teacher or person of authority.” But Christians fall under that spell too. And as they do, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to imagine that their ministers might be sexual predators.
I do not know what Bishop Eddie Long did or did not do with these four young men. I will say, however, that I am predisposed in these cases to give credence to the accusations of the alleged victims, if only because I
have seen sexual coercion happen so often in religious groups.
A civil trial might have changed that predisposition. And a complete and public investigation of Long’s actions by the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church could have done the same.
It’s a shame that neither of those things are going to happen. And those who have the most to be ashamed of — perhaps more than Long himself — are the people in the pews who come every weekend to worship him.
If you aren’t familiar with Long’s preaching style, you can view a sermon he gave in 2000 called “Stop the Cover Up.” To which I can only say, "Amen."