Prominent U.S. evangelical leader Bishop Eddie Long vowed on Sunday to fight accusations he coerced four young male members of his mega-church into sexual relationships.
The men filed civil lawsuits last week alleging Long used his status as pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church to coerce them into relationships when they were in their late teens.
“I’m not a perfect man but this thing I’m going to fight. I feel like David against Goliath but I’ve got five rocks and I haven’t thrown one of them yet,” Long told his congregation of around 6,500 in his first public comments on the scandal.
Long said he was “under attack,” urged his church to pray for him and said he would not let the case be tried in the media. The church members gave him a standing ovation.
Long built his church from just 300 members in 1987 to more than 25,000 today, giving him a position of national prominence, especially within the strand of evangelical belief that says God intends material blessing for his followers.
The church, set on a campus east of Atlanta, runs a global network of ministries and businesses. It hosted the funeral in 2006 of civil rights leader Coretta Scott King.
Plaintiffs Anthony Flagg, 21, Maurice Robinson, 20, and Jamal Parris, 23, filed lawsuits on Tuesday in DeKalb County, Georgia seeking unspecified damages. A suit by a fourth man was added on Friday.
“Long has a pattern and practice of singling out a select group of young male church members and using his authority as bishop over them to ultimately bring them to engage in sexual relationships,” according to the lawsuits filed on Tuesday.
A spokesman for Long categorically denied the accusations in comments to the media.
Other prominent Protestant pastors who have been ensnared in sex scandals include Ted Haggard, the politically influential head of a Colorado mega-church until he was felled in 2006 by allegations of an affair with a male prostitute.