Eddie Long: Mediation could mean end to legal woes

Bishop Eddie Long stood before thousands of his congregants and said the words many hoped to hear:…

Georgia (Feb 17, 2011) — Bishop Eddie Long stood before thousands of his congregants and said the words many hoped to hear: he was going to fight allegations that he coerced four young men into having sexual relations.

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"I'm going to fight and fight vigorously," the prominent pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church said last fall.

But if worshippers are expecting a court fight, they may not get one. This month, Long and his accusers are expected to settle the matter in mediation instead of battling in a courtroom.

Four men -- Maurice Robinson, Jamal Parris, Anthony Flagg and Spencer LeGrande -- have sued the prominent Lithonia megachurch pastor and the 25,000-member church in DeKalb County State Court. New Birth's LongFellows Youth Academy, a mentoring program, is named in three of the four lawsuits, which seek unspecified damages.

Lawyers for both sides met with DeKalb County State Court Judge Johnny Panos last November and agreed to go to mediation as the first major step toward resolving the issue. If mediation fails, the cases could go to trial later this year. Because attorneys in the case declined comment or could not be reached for comment, it remains unclear when or if mediation will start.

"This stage in the process is between the parties and so I cannot describe the process of mediation or any other aspects at this time," said B.J. Bernstein, who represents the accusers.

Barbara A. Marschalk, who represents New Birth and LongFellows, also declined to comment.

"The main reason people go to mediation is to maintain control over the outcome and to find a resolution that meets everybody's needs as well as possible," said Andrea Doneff, an associate professor at the John Marshall Law School in Atlanta.

The trained mediator is a neutral third party who guides the two sides to a mutual resolution while remaining out of the public eye. If the parties agree, the resolution remains confidential.

Doneff, who did not want to comment specifically on the Long case, said when she practiced law she often advised her clients not to expect an admission of guilt. Mediation can take from a few hours to several weeks and if a resolution is not reached, a case can end up "right back where it was in the litigation process," she said.

Mediation is not an unusual step in civil cases. It is used in divorce cases and to help settle disputes between neighbors, businesses and customers or between employers and employees.

"There can be lots of reasons to give it a shot and you don't lose anything," said Thomas Arthur, a professor in Emory University's School of Law. "Why not do it?"

Arthur said he once knew of a judge who sent nearly all of his cases to mediation. For both parties it can mean avoidance of costly litigation and both parties must accept the final resolution. It the cases goes to trial, the outcome becomes less certain.

Arthur said mediation can serve as a reality check for both parties.

"A trained mediator can help overcome some of the mistrust," he said. "The mediator can say things that the other side finds more credible because it comes from someone who doesn't have a dog in the fight. Litigation is tough. I don't think people who haven't been through it realize how grueling it is."

The judge gave the parties an opportunity to agree upon a mediator or said one would be appointed by the court. It's unclear whether the parties will use a private mediator.

Last year, the DeKalb County Dispute Resolution Center received 1,918 referrals, 1,278 of which came from superior court and 302 from state court.

The bulk of the cases are domestic, including divorces, modifications of child support and/or parenting schedules. Civil cases may include contracts, personal injury, tax appeals and probate matters, according to Amber Mees Gallman, executive director of the center.

She said about 85 percent of referrals participate in mediation and the center's settlement rate for those cases is about 71 percent.

Susan S. Raines, director of the master's program in conflict management at Kennesaw State University, said talking to a mediator is akin to talking to a priest. The information shared during mediation is confidential, although allegations of child abuse or neglect can be reported.

Mediation can also be beneficial if one party is seeking more than financial redress, like an apology, a change a behavior or that someone leave a position. The court, she said, can not make someone apologize or change, for instance, church policy.

Additionally, a civil case could be hung up for years in appeals. The mediated resolution is binding.

"It's a much shorter life cycle for the case," Raines said. Additionally, cases “like these can be hard to prove.”

But some question why the case is going to mediation at all.

Anthea Butler, an associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, said some New Birth members may question why Long is going to mediation if he vowed to fight.

Still, she said, he can say that "this is the Christian thing to do."

"The reality is that nobody is ever going to hear what happened in that mediation," she said. "They can talk about anything that happened, what he did or didn't do. But what hangs over him is the original allegations and those don't go away."

Whether in mediation or the courtroom, whatever happens, she said, Long's "stature as a bishop is eroded." And she added, it's not just among some members of his congregation. She questioned whether Long is in demand as a speaker and how well his book and DVD sales are going since the scandal broke.

"His world is confined to the Lithonia campus of New Birth," Butler said. "He's really been under the radar screen and he needs to be."


 

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