May 26th, 2011
05:37 PM ET
By John Blake, CNN
Atlanta (CNN) – Bishop Eddie Long, the Atlanta-based megachurch leader, has reached an out-of-court settlement with four young men who accused him of sexual coercion, representatives for both sides said Thursday.
B.J. Bernstein, the attorney representing the men, said in a statement that the lawsuits against Long and his church have “been resolved.”
Bernstein's two-paragraph statement said that neither she nor the accusers would talk about the lawsuits “now or in the future.”
Art Franklin, a Long spokesman, said Thursday that the pastor settled because it “is the most reasonable road for everyone to travel.”
“This decision was made to bring closure to this matter and to allow us to move forward with the plans God has for this ministry,” Franklin said in a statement.
Long is an internationally known televangelist who crusaded against gay marriage, and the lawsuits against him drew national attention.
The settlement comes eight months after Long, the senior pastor of New Birth Missionary Church in Lithonia, Georgia, said from the pulpit of his 25,000 member megachurch that he vowed to fight the accusations against him, with the congregation cheering in response.
Long entered into mediation talks in February. According to news reports, the sessions between Long and his four accusers - Anthony Flagg, Maurice Robinson, Jamal Parris and Spencer LeGrande - were tense.
The suits accused Long of using his position to coerce the men into having sexual relationships with him while they were teenage members of his congregation.
The lawsuits say Long engaged in intimate sexual acts with the young men, such as massages, masturbation and oral sex.
Long took the young men on trips including to Kenya, according to the suits. He allegedly enticed the young men with gifts including cars, clothes, jewelry and electronic items.
Long's attorneys deny those allegations and maintain that the pastor was attempting to be a father figure to the youths by providing them with financial assistance and encouragement.
Though no trial will now take place, Long may face the judgment of his congregation and fans worldwide.
Shayne Lee, a sociology professor at Tulane University in Louisiana and an authority on televangelists, said Long’s out of court settlement may erode some of his support.
“When you settle outside of court, it implies that there’s some guilt involved,” said Lee, author of "Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace."
“To the average congregation in the black church, those are some very serious charges,” Lee said, referring to the men’s charges against Long. “You can’t settle outside of court. You have to fight and roll up your sleeves, be defiant and fight it.”
Since the scandal had erupted, attendance at Long’s church had fallen, and New Birth officials have announced plans to lay off staff and cut Long’s salary.
But Lee said it would be premature to think that Long will retreat from the pulpit.
“He can say ‘I still have my anointing and I still have my ministry,’ ’’ Lee said. “He can say that God is working out the weeds so that the tree has a stronger foundation.”
The four men’s accusations stunned many of Long’s followers. A married man, Long had often preached about the sanctity of marriage. He once led a march against gay marriage.
Long had also cultivated a public image that was built on his machismo. He wore tight muscle shirts in the pulpit. He wrote books that compared Christian men to spiritual gladiators. He told people he had a special calling to reach men.
One Atlanta pastor predicted Long will survive the scandal because his core audience will forgive him.
“Black folks have very short memories,” said the Rev. Tim McDonald, senior pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. “We are the most forgiving people on the planet."
McDonald, who said he has talked privately with Long since the scandal erupted, said Long “went into a shell” after the accusations against him went public.
Before the scandal erupted, Long would often publicly criticize other black pastors, and once said they “major in storefront buildings,” suggesting that they lacked the business acumen to build a megachurch like he had.
But Long had shown a different public face lately, McDonald said. His entourage wasn’t as big; he was more visible in the community.
“I found him opening up,” McDonald said. “If he can pick that back up and humble himself and stop saying things like, ‘I ain’t just another chicken-eating preacher,’ he’ll survive.”
Lee, the Tulane sociologist, said Long will remain in the pulpit for another reason.
“This is what he knows,” Lee said. “He’s not going to be able to sell insurance or cars. He’s cocky. He’s confident. He believes in redemption.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.