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'I'm under attack,' Georgia bishop accused of sexual misconduct tells church
He became a national figure in 2006 when his church hosted four U.S. presidents and other dignitaries for the funeral of Coretta Scott King. The next year, he was one of the mega-church preachers whom Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) investigated to determine whether they were violating their tax-exempt status because of the ministers' flashy lifestyles.
Long balked at the inquiry, called it an invasive "attack" and sent what Grassley's staff deemed an evasive response to its queries about the church's finances. Long also defended accepting more than $3 million in salary and benefits from a defunct tax-exempt group called Bishop Eddie Long Ministries.
Grassley's office said Sunday that "the Eddie L. Long Ministries provided limited information and did not cooperate fully."
Long built the congregation up from 300 members two decades ago, and along the way has become something of a celebrity preacher, creating a luxe ministerial and personal empire. Long has given large amounts of money to charity, but he also wears big diamond rings, drives a Bentley and encourages his church members to pray for financial prosperity.
CNN had cameras streaming the service live Sunday morning, capturing the exuberant worship, which was also broadcast to dozens of countries via Christian television networks.
Long, a married man with four children, told the crowd that his lawyers had advised him not to "try this case in the media," and his remarks were short on details of the lawsuits. He did speak at length about enduring painful situations and said more than once that he is not a "perfect" man.
Members almost universally closed ranks around the preacher, who had told them: "I love you, New Birth, and I'm not leaving you if you don't leave me."
At the church, where people lined up two hours before the start of service, most were willing to give Long the benefit of the doubt. Some wore T-shirts with one of New Birth's mottos: "Love like him. Live like him. Lead like him."
Others stood in prayer circles, clutching Bibles and singing the hymn, "Wash Me White as Snow."
Parishioners said they worry that Long is under attack, and some members seemed to assume a battle position, praying and singing and doing the Atlanta Braves' "tomahawk chop" before Long came out.
"The devil always tries to attack the kingdom, but we know that victory is ahead," said Ian Waite, who has been a member of the church for six years. "We will fight it on our knees with prayer and fasting.
"He's not a perfect man, but God will fight on his behalf. . . . If it ends up being true, we have to be there on his behalf. He's just human. In life, we have failure and downfalls, but God will see you through."
Few doubted that Long will survive the scandal, no matter the outcome of the lawsuits against him. Anthea Butler, a religion professor at the University of Pennsylvania, traveled to New Birth to hear Long answer the allegations; she said that in the short term, it is clear the preacher will go on.
"Remember, Jimmy Swaggart is still preaching," she said, referring to the televangelist who lost his large church in a sex scandal and now has a smaller congregation. "Long's defiant [statement that] 'I will fight this,' coupled with 'I am not a perfect man' is smart. It leaves him room to settle [the case] and still stay in the pulpit. . . . But I suspect the world of New Birth just got confined to his sprawling campus in Lithonia, Georgia."
Staff writer Hamil Harris in Washington contributed to this story.