On the afternoon of Wed., July 31, officers of the Tampa police department took a battering ram to the front door of the tiny Apostolic Catholic Church of Christ the Servant in Sulphur Springs. The dramatic door-smashing was captured by ABC Action News and broadcast repeatedly that evening along with the sensational capture of the purportedly dangerous criminal who was holed up inside: Bishop Chuck Leigh.
A soft-spoken, bespectacled man with a Santa Claus beard, Leigh has been conducting Sunday sermons and providing counseling to the poor out of his modest oak-shaded church just a few feet from Nebraska Avenue for over 17 years. The Apostolic Catholic Church, which is not connected with the Roman Catholic church, is a small denomination with approximately 7,000 members in the U.S. As president of the board of the Florida Council of Churches, Leigh is well-known in local faith-based communities as a passionate advocate for the poor who’s gone out of his way to help those struggling with hard times. “He’s the real deal,” said Jon Dengler, director of The Well, an Ybor City-based homeless ministry affiliated with the Underground Network of Churches. “He put his church in that neighborhood to live among the poor and serve the poor. He has a constant relationship with people in need.”
According to Tampa police, at least one of those relationships went too far. Early this summer, police say they received a tip from a confidential informant that Leigh was falsifying court-ordered community service hours in exchange for sex — a charge that Leigh vehemently denies. He counters that the police are targeting him because of his activism in defense of the impoverished in Sulphur Springs. He says he’s helped homeless families move into foreclosed homes in the neighborhood and believes he’s provoked the ire of law enforcement over his refusal to respond to subpoenas asking him to testify against alleged drug dealers near his church.
“I’m not going to allow the State to use the church to enhance a penalty,” Leigh said. “You don’t have to stop selling drugs to come to church.”
The saga begins, as Leigh tells it, in late May of this year when a woman he’d known for several years and who had occasionally attended service at his church, stopped in to solicit him for sex. “Being located on Nebraska Avenue, I’m used to that sort of thing,” Leigh recalls. “I gave Lisa my stock response: I’m an old man. I’d probably have a heart attack with someone like you.”
Unbeknownst to Bishop Leigh, “Lisa” was wearing a wire. That conversation with the informant, as well as several subsequent ones with an undercover officer posing as a convict on probation named “Crystal,” were recorded by TPD as part of an investigation into Leigh’s activities. According to a police report submitted to the court by Officer Victor Gancedo, the informant Lisa and the undercover officer attempted on several occasions to entice Leigh into signing off on community service hours in exchange for sex. The report also details elaborate attempts to convince Leigh to express interest in viewing child pornography — a fetish that Lisa informed police that the priest was into.
“It’s laughable,” Leigh says. “Why would they launch this investigation on the strength of one person’s word who has a record of lying and a long criminal history? The police are clearly attempting to smear my reputation. Why else would they bring in TV cameras to film them busting in the door of the church. It was unlocked!”
On the last day of July, Leigh was mowing his lawn when he received a phone call from the undercover agent “Crystal.” She claimed that her probation officer was going to send her to jail if she did not complete all of her court-ordered community service hours. Leigh says she begged him to meet her at the church right away. When he showed up, Crystal asked if he would sign off on 33 hours of community service that she said she had done by babysitting a child in her care. By all accounts, Leigh complied — as he had in the past. “My church exists for them. I’m here for convicts. I’m here for the poor,” he explains. “I have some discretion as to the work that they are doing to benefit the community.”
What happened next is subject to debate. Leigh claims that Crystal asked for a hug to express her gratitude. Police claim that it was Leigh who asked for the hug, several long ones in fact, in exchange for signing off on the hours. In any case, after the prolonged hugfest, police burst through the front door of the church with the battering ram and an ABC Action News crew in tow.
Bishop Leigh was charged with 12 counts of falsifying official documents — all misdemeanors — which were later reduced to just one charge. He says he was held for several hours after his arrest so that police could do a “perp walk” to parade him in front of the media in handcuffs, “They worked it out with the media in advance.” Leigh also claims that one of the arresting officers told him the orders for his arrest came straight from Mayor Buckhorn’s office. The mayor’s office denies the claim.
Much of the news coverage of the arrest focused on the uncorroborated sexual allegations made by Lisa, none of which the priest was ever charged with. ABC Action News covered the story on two consecutive evenings and included an exclusive interview with the informant. One headline on their website reads: “I-Team Exclusive: Bishop accused of sex acts involving prostitutes, communion cup.”
Throughout the ordeal, Leigh has maintained his innocence and has taken to the church’s website, apostoliccatholicchurch.com, to tell his side of the story. “These police actions are not about law enforcement,” he writes. “They are a form of political suppression. It is very dangerous to be a voice for the poor in Tampa … The real news story in my arrest is the abuse of power by the police and the media’s wholehearted collaboration in that abuse.”
This is not the first time Bishop Leigh has had a brush with the law. In 1987, he was arrested for mail fraud involving falsified documentation for mortgages. He says he was trying to protect poor people who were being taken advantage of by the financial system. “I wanted to keep them in their homes for as long as possible because what was happening to them was unethical.” He served five years in prison as a result despite the support of numerous clergy and amnesty groups from around the world including Mother Theresa and Amnesty International, who wrote dozens of letters asking for his pardon.
Tampa Police spokesperson Laura McElroy condemns the notion that the city is out to get Bishop Leigh. “That’s ridiculous,” she said. “We work with numerous good faith-based organizations and programs that help the poor and homeless in the area.” McElroy initially told CL that the television crew “just happened to be there” during the raid of Leigh’s church. After being told of information in the arrest report alluding to the fact that ABC Action News had been tipped off by police and a news story posted on the ABC News website showing law enforcement planning the raid on the church, she called back to amend her comment. “The news media was invited along for the raid,” she explained, “but we did not tip them off.”
This sort of contradiction doesn’t sit well with some in the faith community. Reverend Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, suspects there is more going on than meets the eye with the made-for-media police raid. “There is a real attempt to silence Bishop Leigh,” he says. “The picture painted by the local media is not only a fabrication and an insult, it’s an attack on the Church and its relationship with the poor.”
Meyer is one of several following the case who have floated the theory that activists like Bishop Leigh are standing in the way of the city’s gentrification plans for Sulphur Springs and have thus become targets. Citing Mayor Buckhorn’s Nehemiah Project to demolish houses considered havens for drug dealers and prostitutes and the city’s aggressive code enforcement and plans to “repopulate” the neighborhood, some see the work of Leigh’s Apostolic Catholic Church as antithetical to the administration’s vision. Leigh, Meyer and others also assert that police compensated the informant Lisa for her part in the investigation and helped her relocate to another state. Police deny the charge.
Reverend Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries in St. Petersburg was ordained by Bishop Leigh and has known him for several years. He’s no fan of the police. “The police oppress the poor, and people like Chuck stand up for the poor plain and simple,” he says. “If any of the allegations were true, he would have been charged.”
Adding fuel to the speculation of entrapment, Leigh says he has been approached since his arrest by either informants or undercover agents of the police. On Sept. 18, a woman known as Tracy approached him at his church and asked him for a “date” so she could pay her phone bill. “You’d really be helping me out a lot,” Leigh claims she said. “It would be our secret.” Leigh says he gave her his stock response and she left, walking north over the Hillsborough River bridge. Curious, Leigh followed from a distance and saw her walk toward two Tampa police cars and a waiting ABC Action News van. She leaned into the open police window and spoke to the police.
Bill McFarland, news director for WFTS ABC Action News, says he has no knowledge of the Sept. 18 incident that Leigh described, but that the news agency routinely accompanies TPD on raids. He also confirmed that the news agency was tipped off about the investigation but declined to verify whether or not the source worked with the police.
On Sun., Oct. 13, Bishop Leigh conducted regular services at his church. With approximately 20 people in attendance, including his wife, he gave blessings and ordained a young deacon into the faith. Despite his legal issues, Leigh seemed in surprisingly good spirits and encouraged members of his congregation to talk freely with the press. None of the parishioners I spoke to that day believed the allegations against their Bishop.
“He helps people who have fallen through the cracks,” one person said who preferred not to be identified. “For some reason, some folks don’t like that.”