On June 21, 2022, Henry Lee Porter Sr., the former bishop of a Sarasota evangelical church, Westcoast Center for Human Development, began his week-long trial after he was arrested in 2020 for sexually abusing multiple children from as far back as 1989. According to media reports, after a 3-hour deliberation in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court on June 24, the jury found Henry Lee Porter, Sr. guilty on two counts of sexual battery of a child under the age of 12.
Porter, age 74, faced four of his victims as they shared their experiences of the sexual abuse they endured that began when they were young boys. The state provided the jury with testimonies to show the viable pattern of preying on young boys portrayed by Porter. The first victim that spoke, now a 40-year-old man, testified that he was groomed and sexually abused in multiple ways by Porter from the ages of 11 to 21. He said much of it occurred in a private room in the church that only Porter had a key to open. The victim stated, “Then we would put our clothes back on, we would always pray, and then confess our faults to each other.”
The second victim, a now 49-year-old man, testified that he was abused by Henry Lee Porter since he was 15 years old. He said he eventually told Porter to stop the abuse 14 years after it had started when he was 29 years old. He left the church soon after.
Porter’s attorney stated that they were disappointed but respected the jury process. He also said that they planned on moving to appeal the outcome. Porter has not been sentenced yet, however, he could be facing a life sentence.
Porter was arrested in January 2020 by Sarasota Police Department after several victims came forward with allegations of being sexually abused by the minister. After Porter was arrested, a second victim came forward, telling police the abuse happened between April and November of 1990 when the victim was attending the Westcoast Center for Human Development school. Police stated that they feared there were going to be a lot more allegations to come. A total of 14 victims came forward, alleging that Porter, Sr., sexually abused them about 30 years ago. but was only charged with just two of them because the statute of limitations prevented police from pressing more criminal charges, according to media reports.
Sarasota detectives had conducted a string of criminal investigations dating back to 1990 in response to multiple victims telling investigators throughout the years that Porter forced oral and anal sex on them and forced them to reciprocate. Porter’s arrest report stated that previous investigations began in the 1990s and the early 2000s, but the statute of limitations and witnesses’ reluctance to testify were obstacles for criminal charges. The most recent investigation leading to Porter’s arrest was initiated in October 2019, when Sarasota police received notification of a Facebook video titled “Art of Manipulation — My survival of Molestation” from a user who said he was sexually abused as a child by a bishop at Westcoast Center for Human Development.
According to court documents, the victim told detectives that his first memory of sexual abuse started when he was 11 years old after his parents went to a hospital out-of-state and continued until he was 21. The abuse involved “fondling, masturbation, oral and anal sex” with guidance from Porter. It often occurred in Porter’s inner office, in the Westcoast Center for Human Development.
Police interviewed more than 20 similar “fact victims”, all boys ages 14 to young adults of various ages who provided statements outlining the abuse by Porter in various locations including on cross-country mission trips and on church-sponsored trips. Prior investigations revealed an anonymous letter that named 40 of Porter’s child sexual abuse victims.
Porter founded the Westcoast Gospel Chorus and was pastor of the church he incorporated in 1971 for 45 years. He stepped down in June 2016 and his son, Henry Porter II, took his post. Porter was held without bail until his trial. Now Porter faces what could be a lifetime in jail.
The role of pastors in the church is to support the spiritual needs of their parishioners. Education and often counseling and guidance in times of need are responsibilities with which they are entrusted. A trusted clergyman who sexually violates young children has no place working in the Church. Any ministry in which such a crime is committed must take responsibility for failing to properly screen potential clergy and protect its parishioners.
UPDATE: On September 22, 2022, Bishop Henry Lee Porter Sr. was sentenced to two consecutive life terms after a jury convicted him in June of two counts of capital sexual battery upon a child less than 12 years of age.
Horowitz Law is a law firm representing victims and survivors of sexual abuse by clergy. If you or a loved one was sexually abused, raped, or sexually molested by a priest or other clergy, contact our law firm at 888-283-9922 or send an e-mail to sexual abuse lawyer Adam Horowitz at [email protected] for a free consultation.