Lawyers for both sides in Bishop Eddie Long's case met for the first court hearing Friday, saying they wanted to resolve the dispute quickly.
Attorney William Hill spoke on behalf of the Atlanta megachurch pastor during the status hearing at the DeKalb County courtroom. Long, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct from four young men, did not attend. Both parties agreed to a mediation session slated for early next year.
"The case could benefit from early mediation," said Hill.
A judge set the mediation hearing for February. A tentative trial date is scheduled for July 7, reported Atlanta-based station WSB-TV. If mediation talks fail and the case goes to trial, each lawsuit could be tried separately or together.
Jamal Parris and three other young men have filed lawsuits against Long, the head pastor of the 25,000-member New Birth Missionary Baptist Church. The lawsuits allege that the minister lured them into sexual relationships by using his position and lavishing them with gifts.
“The court can see from each of the complaints they are detailed complaints as to what the acts and allegations that are complained of by our clients,” said B.J. Bernstein, the attorney representing the four plaintiffs.
Long has officially denied the allegations, stating on the first page of responses to all four lawsuits: "The Plantiff's claims to sexual misconduct are not true."
In the response, Long said he mentored the young men and took them on trips but denied that any sexual activity took place.
New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, which is also listed as a defendant in all four lawsuits, said in its formal response that it could neither confirm nor deny the sexual allegations, although it confirmed that Long took the four men on trips.
Since the allegations became public, Long has retreated from public engagements. In September, he canceled a radio interview with the Tom Joyner Morning Show. And earlier this month, Long backed out of a scheduled appearance at a large Christian rally held at the Georgia Dome.
Long has vowed to fight the allegations, comparing his battle to that of David and Goliath.
“I have never in my life portrayed myself as a perfect man. But I am not the man that’s being portrayed on the television," he told his congregation on Sept. 26, shortly after news broke out about the lawsuits.
Meanwhile, Gospel Today owner Teresa Hairston is defending the magazine's decision to feature Long on the cover of its November/December issue after readers sent complaints.
"Gospel Today did not explore the legalities or the issues; we presented a biblical perspective-something no other outlet gave," wrote Hairston on the magazine's website.