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Anti-gay US cleric sought 'massages' from young men

By Rupert Cornwell in Washington

Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of one of America's best-known "megachurches" who is facing sexual misconduct allegations, will make his first public comments on the claims of three young men during services on Sunday, in which he is expected to deny the accusations against him.

Yesterday Bishop Long cancelled an interview on a nationally syndicated radio programme. Instead, his lawyer went on the show to read a statement from the pastor, saying he wanted to respond to the allegations but had been legally advised to wait. "Let me be clear. The charges against me are false," the statement said.



The affair erupted on Tuesday, when three men who were members of Bishop Long's New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in the Atlanta suburb of Lithonia, claimed in separate lawsuits that he forced them into sexual relations with gifts including cars, cash and travel when they were aged 17 and 18.



Unusually, the three men – Maurice Robinson, Anthony Flagg and Jamal Parris – have allowed their names to be made public. In documents obtained by ABC News, Mr Parris claimed that the bishop would request he be nude in his presence and would request "sexual massages" and "oral sodomy" during trips together in the US and abroad.



Members of the New Birth church, whose membership has grown from 300 to over 25,000 since Bishop Long became pastor in 1987, include politicians, celebrities and the county sheriff. Four years ago, it played host to four US presidents during the funeral of Coretta Scott King, the widow of the Reverend Martin Luther King. Its complex includes a 10,000 seat cathedral, costing $50m [£31.8m].



Bishop Long, who is married with four children, has been a vociferous campaigner against same sex marriage, and in 2004 led a march with Rev King's daughter Bernice to her father's grave in Atlanta in support of a proposed constitutional amendment that defined marriage as "between one man and one woman."



The pastor's lawyer, Craig Gillen, said the trips with the young men were part of a "mentoring programme" in which other members of the congregation also took part. He said the three who had levelled the accusations of sexual impropriety were motivated by money – and one, he noted, had been accused of breaking into the pastor's office.



However the version of BJ Bernstein, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, was rather different, although she admitted she had little physical evidence to back up the allegations. Bishop Long had sent dozens of emails and phone calls to her clients, which were not "overly sexual." But she said she would subpoena records from Bishop Long that would show he travelled with the young men to New York, Las Vegas, New Zealand and elsewhere.



She also implied that the New Birth church was so influential that the local authorities could not be trusted to investigate the claims properly. "This is a really large church that's incredibly politically powerful, Ms Bernstein said. "There are pictures of this guy with every politician around. With something this important, how can I trust that word didn't get back to the bishop?"



Sexual and homosexual allegations against religious figures in the US are nothing new. In 2006, Ted Haggard, leader of a mega-church in Colorado and president of the National Evangelical Association, was revealed to have had a gay affair. This week Rev Haggard – who now says he is "completely heterosexual" – spoke out in support of Bishop Long, saying: "Nobody's guilty until the court says he's guilty."

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