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More Victims Emerge In Sarasota Ex-Bishop Sex Assault Case

Exterior of the WestCoast Center for Human Development at 403 N. Washington in Sarasota
Some of the victims allege that sex abuse happened inside the Westcoast Center for Human Development, a church that ex-bishop Henry Porter founded in 1971. Credit: Kerry Sheridan/WUSF

A total of 14 victims have come forward, alleging that former bishop Henry Lee Porter, Sr. 72, sexually abused them, in a case that detectives began investigating 30 years ago, the Sarasota Police Department said Wednesday. 

Allegations of abuse stretch back decades, but police say the statute of limitations and witnesses’ reluctance to testify were obstacles to an arrest. 

Police were able to arrest 72-year-old Henry Porter on Jan. 2 on felony charges of sexual battery of a child under 12, after one of victims provided enough evidence and was willing to testify. Now, Porter is being held at Sarasota County Jail without bond, and faces life in prison if convicted.

“It is not even a courage that any of us could even understand, to be able to come forward and talk and reveal things that have happened to them in the past, especially to somebody that they trusted, and someone in the community they felt was someone they could go to and to trust,” police chief Bernadette DiPino told reporters during a press conference Wednesday.

“That’s why this is such a disturbing case, it is one that is so troubling. It is one that our police department never stopped investigating and continue up until this day and we are very grateful we were able to get an individual who came forward and share what happened to them and it met the criteria to be able to bring to the state attorney’s office and bring charges.”

The victim says Porter began abusing him in 1989. Police investigated Porter in 1990, and again in the early 2000s, but did not arrest him.

Mug shot of Henry Lee Porter.
Credit Sarasota County Jail
Porter, 72, was arrested January 2, 2020 and is being held without bond. He is charged with felony sexual battery of a child under 12. If convicted, he faces life in prison.

The investigation got a boost in October after one of Porter’s alleged victims posted a Facebook video called, "The Art of Manipulation: My Survival of Molestation," in which he talked about being sexually abused by a bishop as a teenager in the 1980s.

"Through the formal interview of the victim, additional potential victims were identified. The additional victims reached out to victim seen in the video for support and to admit they too were victims of sexual abuse by Porter," said a Sarasota Police Department statement.

Since Porter’s arrest last Thursday, four more victims have come forward to authorities, bringing the total to 14. They say they were sexually abused by Porter, either at the church or in his home, when they were between the ages of 12 and 19.

Police believe more victims are out there, and are encouraging them to reach out to law enforcement. Anyone with information is urged to call Detective Jeff Birdwell at (941) 263-6028. 

DiPino also said parents should talk to their children and encourage young people to speak up if someone they feel they trust is hurting them.

Porter founded the Westcoast Center for Human Development Church in 1971 and led it until 2016, when he handed it over to his son, Henry Porter, Jr. Police say Porter, Sr. was still active in the church and led a service there as recently as two months ago. 

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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