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Former Sarasota church leader found guilty in child sexual abuse trial

More than 10 people had made allegations against him.

SARASOTA, Fla. — Henry Porter Sr. was found guilty in his trial for sexual battery of a child.

A sentencing date will be announced at a later date. Jury deliberations began Friday in the trial of the former non-denominational bishop from Sarasota.

Under the law, each individual count Porter Sr. faced came with a minimum sentencing guideline of 25 years in jail and a maximum of life in prison.

Porter Sr., 74, was arrested in January 2020 after more than 10 people came forward with allegations.

He served as pastor for Westcoast Church. A portion of a Sarasota street is named in Porter Sr.'s honor. His son has taken over the church.

The prosecution began with opening statements Tuesday, laying out the framework for their case. State Attorney Ryan Felix spoke directly to the jury and called this a "case of manipulation."

"Henry Lee Porter harnessed the word of God to sexually abuse children," Felix said.

The defense agreed, this is a case of manipulation  – but not from Porter Sr. 

"The manipulation is coming from witnesses that you're going to hear from in this trial," Defense Attorney Brett McIntosh said during opening statements.

Detectives said they examined accusations against Porter Sr. that spanned 30 years.

A man who was a church member and student at Westcoast Center for Human Development had accused Porter Sr. of abusing him beginning in 1989 when he was just 12 years old. Prosecutors argued the abuse continued for several years at the church, which was founded by Porter. 

Another allegation of sexual abuse happened between April and November in 1990 while an accuser attended school at the church. Investigators alleged the victims were between 12 and 19 – with at least one accuser being under 12 at the time of the alleged abuse.

During the weeklong trial, the jury heard from two people who said they were victims. One of them, Porter Sr. gave a eulogy at his father's funeral, officiated his wedding and christened his child in the church.

That man, now in his 40s, described how he said Porter Sr. groomed and abused him during the years he grew up in the church. He has asked to remain anonymous.

"Then we would put our clothes back on," the individual said. "He would always pray, have us confess our faults to each other."

The person said he was brought into a private room in the church that only Porter Sr. had a key to. Graphic descriptions were given of sexual abuse.

The individual testified that part of why he decided to come forward was because when he went back to the church, he feared other young children were still being abused.

While the person's allegations are now decades old, there's an exemption in the statute of limitations for sexual battery of a child under 18.


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