Eddie Long: the Real Scandal Is Even Bigger

By Christa Brown
Religion Dispatches
September 28, 2010

Anybody home?

#The case of Bishop Eddie Long isn’t about gay sex; it’s not about black churches; and it’s not about megachurches. The case is about allegations of clergy sex abuse and the systemic lack of accountability for clergy, a problem for many nondenominational churches like Long’s that mirrors a growing problem in the Baptist community.

As most of the country knows by now, four young men filed lawsuits last week in which they accused Long of having repeatedly coerced them into sexual acts when they were 17 and 18 years old.

The four young men belonged to the church when they were teens. The lawsuits assert that Long hand-picked the boys for spiritual mentoring and referred to them as his “spiritual sons.” According to court documents (and as reported by Sarah Posner here on RD and by the Seattle Times), the boys went through a bonding ritual, called a “covenant ceremony,” in which Long quoted Bible verses “to discuss and justify the intimate relationship between himself” and the teen boys.

Because Long has preached in opposition to gay rights, many seem to view the case as being about hypocrisy and homosexuality. But this view misses the mark.

The allegations, if proven, involve conduct that is far more troubling than mere hypocrisy. And they involve conduct that is something far different from consensual gay sex. They involve conduct in which faith itself — the faith of trusting teens — is twisted into a weapon so as to serve the sexual ends of a powerful religious leader.

It is inherently manipulative for any pastor to use a congregant — even an adult congregant — for his own sexual ends. In some states, such conduct may even be considered a felony, just as it would if a psychologist or physician were to sexually exploit a patient.

Some have said that the media is using the Eddie Long case to cast aspersions on the black church. But make no mistake about it, we have seen scores of similar cases involving, for example, the Southern Baptist Convention whose churches are, by and large, white.

For example, consider the parallel case of a minister at the First Baptist Church of Benton, Arkansas, who was convicted on four counts of sexual indecency with children. He was charged with 54 counts, but in the plea bargain process, the number was reduced to the number of victims involved in the prosecution.

The perpetrator’s faith-twisting modus operandi was to tell his favorite “disciples’ – the boys he chose for special attention — that he was checking them “spiritually, scholastically, socially and sexually.” He called it “the 4 S’s.” As one victim, now in his late-20s, explained, “This developed into measuring our private parts, which led to a kind of mutual masturbation.” It was “basically brainwashing,” he said.

Some pondered the question of how a minister at such a prominent church could “sexually victimize scores of boys” over a period of at least two decades. In part, the answer lies in the lack of effective oversight systems for clergy.

As in the Eddie Long case, in which attorney Brenda Bernstein asserts that “church officials knew about the abuse and failed to stop it,” so too, in the Benton case, there were reports that church officials had known about other accounts of abuse from men whose claims were too old for prosecution.

Even after the Benton minister was convicted, church and community leaders were slow to see the seriousness of it. Many people, including a Little Rock pastor who was a 2-term president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, wrote letters urging leniency and no prison time for the minister – as though it were a matter of little consequence.

Unlike other major faith groups that have denominational systems for disciplining their clergy, with Baptists and many nondenomination churches like Long’s New Birth Church, criminal conviction is often the only means of getting a man removed from ministry. Most Baptist groups don’t even bother with denominational record-keeping on credibly-accused clergy, much less with processes for revoking their ordinations.

And contrary to what some have suggested, this safety gap is a problem not merely for megachurches or charismatic churches but for almost all Baptist churches as well. Baptists proclaim the autonomy of the local church, and most Baptist faith groups, including Southern Baptists, have effectively distorted that autonomy doctrine into a false wall for protecting the powerful and avoiding outside scrutiny.

In every church, the pastor is usually the most powerful and trusted person. Yet, from the smallest to the largest, Baptist churches engage the delusion that a pastor’s cronies and colleagues can exercise effective oversight. They can’t.

What happened in the Eddie Long case has happened in countless Baptist churches across the country. As reported in the Washington Post, “members almost universally closed ranks around the preacher.”

It’s an old story. Power without accountability leads to abuse of power. Baptists are no exception.

*This essay originally referred to Bishop Eddie Long as a "Baptist" pastor. While his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church clearly does identify to some extent as Baptist it does not offically belong to any of the major Baptist associations. In practice and theology Long and his church are more closely aligned with Pentecostalism.


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