The Rev. Henry Lyons, leader of one of the nation's largest black denominations, said Thursday he's not the "monster" portrayed by the media but did not directly rebut charges he used church money for himself and two mistresses.
Lyons spoke to reporters for about 10 minutes at the headquarters of the National Baptist Convention USA in downtown Nashville. He did not take any questions and made no mention of stepping down as leader.
Lyons said the congregation at his own church, Bethel Metropolitan Church in St. Petersburg, Fla., supports him. He said he was uplifted by a prayer meeting there Wednesday night, hours after he was charged with racketeering and two theft counts.
"I've been pastor of this church for 27 years. I haven't been the monster I've been portrayed as in the media all those years," he told reporters in Nashville.
F. Lee Bailey, who helped defend O.J. Simpson, has been hired by Lyons. He said Lyons has endured some "very lopsided attacks" and urged the media to use restraint.
According to prosecutors, Lyons stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from the convention and defrauded the Anti-Defamation League out of nearly $250,000 it donated to rebuild black churches that had been burned down in the South.
Lyons opened a secret bank account and diverting church funds to himself and two mistresses, according to a criminal complaint filed in Pinellas County, Fla.. It also alleges Lyons inflated church membership by millions of people to boost donations.
In past months, Lyons survived repeated no-confidence votes from the church membership and apologized but said he would not give up his presidency before his five-year term ends in 1999.
"I have sinned," he said in December. "And I have displayed human weaknesses and frailties." He talked about the corrupting power of money but made it clear he would not give up his Baptist presidency before the five-year term ends in 1999.
Lyons, 55, who could face 30 years in prison, is free on $100,000 bail.
Written by Kimberly Greuter
©1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 1998 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.