Bishop Eddie Long stood in the pulpit Sunday morning, looked out over the thousands assembled to hear him speak, and talked of his congregation as a family that gave him great comfort in a time of pain.
Long also spoke fondly of other ministers — his sons and daughters, he called them — who had begun at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church and had left to their own congregations to return home in a show of support and solidarity.
Yet, after days of awkward silence, Long could not look the members of that family in the face and tell them plainly that he was innocent, that he had not engaged in sex with four young male church members who looked to him for guidance.
As the bishop explained to the congregation, he had been counseled by attorneys not to address the facts of the case.
“It will be tried in the court of justice and dealt with in the court of justice, and please understand, because that’s the only place I think I’ll get justice,” Long told the congregation.
There’s logic to that. Long is a smart man, and a smart man listens to his attorneys. But the bishop is also too smart to truly believe that this can be handled as merely a legal dispute.
Long’s own description of his congregation as a family makes that point all too well. His four accusers are — or were until recently — also members of “the New Birth family,” most of them since boyhood. They were drawn to the church seeking guidance and salvation, but now claim to have received something quite different from those they trusted.
In rallying so strongly to Long, the church is in effect turning its back on other members of its family who may have been victims of an awful betrayal. If we are not to judge Long guilty or innocent prematurely, it would seem important to give his accusers the same benefit of the doubt. Yet so far, based on no apparent investigation, the church seems ready to cast them aside as liars.
As family counselors and child-abuse specialists can testify, that’s not surprising. The dynamics at New Birth are painfully similar to those in families all across the country.
Set aside for the moment the question of guilt or innocence. Too often, when a younger, subordinate family member alleges abuse at the hands of an elder, the instinctive, self-protective reaction of other adults is to ignore it, to close eyes and ears and hearts to the claim and the claimant. It happens every day.
That is particularly true when the alleged abuser is the family breadwinner and authority figure, because the consequences of the charge being true are so explosive.
In a church as in a home, it can be far less painful to suppress the claim than to demand accountability from those with power.
That scenario is clearly playing out at New Birth. In remarks to the media Sunday, Long said that not only is he staying in the pulpit, he intends to increase his longstanding commitment to work with youth, both “young men and young ladies.” Apparently, no one in the church hierarchy is willing to tell Long that innocent or guilty, that is not a smart move.
It’s also important to point out that a courtroom victory or negotiated settlement may not be enough to allow Long to claim innocence on the larger charges against him.
In a courtroom, if you can’t argue the facts then you can at least argue the law. In this case, the civil case against Long depends heavily on the issue of coercion. If — and that little two-letter word remains powerfully important — if Long did indeed engage in sex with young men in his congregation, he could argue that they did so of their own free will and thus avoid being legally liable.
However, outside the courtroom, that kind of verdict would be hard to sell as vindication, even to the family at New Birth.