Saturday, April 21, 2018
Public safety

Prosecutors drop most charges against Tampa pastor accused of 'groping'

TAMPA — Prosecutors have dropped all but one of 12 charges against a Tampa clergyman accused of falsifying community service documents for probationers in exchange for a series of "groping hugs."

Charles Leigh, 64, who leads Apostolic Catholic Church in Tampa and describes himself as a bishop, still faces a single misdemeanor count of making false official statements, according to court records.

But Leigh says the state's unwillingness to pursue the other counts is evidence that the case against him was a sham. He says he believes the police have made him a target because of his work with the poor.

"I can't get into their heads," he said. "I think it has to do with my advocacy in that neighborhood. It's not overzealous police. It's corrupt police."

Leigh's arrest came a few weeks after officers received a tip that he was falsifying probation paperwork, Tampa police said. On June 19, an undercover officer pretending to be on probation went in and waited to meet with him to see about earning community service hours. Leigh signed off on paperwork saying the woman had performed 17 community service hours after giving her four "intimate hugs," police said. She returned in July and got three "groping hugs" in exchange for 33 more hours, police said.

Leigh's church, which is little more than a small house at 7813 N Nebraska Ave., is part of a Christian denomination that promotes itself as an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. His parishioners include prostitutes and people on probation.

When he was arrested July 31, a process that unfolded before a bank of TV news cameras and reporters, police officials made note of his arrests from the 1970s on charges of sexual battery and robbery — charges that also were not pursued by prosecutors. They also highlighted his sole criminal conviction from a home loan scheme he operated in the 1980s, which netted him five years in federal prison.

All of it, Leigh said, was an effort to discredit him as a good Samaritan within the community. His church's website — apostoliccatholicchurch.com — features a number of new pages in which he writes at length about police corruption and persecution.

He says he kicked out other undercover officers who came to visit his church after they tried to entrap him. One tried to get him to take a set of child pornography, he said, an offer he vociferously refused.

Regarding the allegations against him, Leigh says a woman he knew came to him for advice on how to handle her suicidal stepdaughter.

"My contract with the Department of Corrections said it was up to me what constituted community service," Leigh said. "That, to me, taking care of a fragile stepdaughter, I thought this was something the church could very well justify."

As for the hugs, Leigh admits that the woman embraced him. But there was nothing sexual about it, he said.

"It takes a lot more than that to even get me interested," Leigh said. "I'm an old guy with prostate problems."

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