Former church members accuse Charlotte pastor of abuse

Charlotte Observer, North Carolina/March 1, 2012

He is a Charlotte pastor who calls himself an "apostle" and is described by some as "charming" and "charismatic." But former church members tell the I-Team, there is a darker side to this self-proclaimed disciple.

Pastor Clavon Leonard started the Church of Philadelphia in Charlotte's Hidden Valley neighborhood. "We live by the word. People do by the word. It's a church of love," said Leonard.

But six former church leaders have come forward with accusations of spiritual, physical and sexual abuse. "I would describe him as barbaric," said former minister of music Talitha Williams. Former church member Ayanna Armstrong described Leonard as a cult leader. "His whole being, that's all he is, is mind control," said Armstrong.

During an interview with the I-Team, Leonard responded that he is not a cult leader and not a controlling person, " I'm a strict person. Controlling? In this age we live in, I don't think nobody can be controlled unless they want to be controlled."

Pastor Leonard has a group of young adult male assistants called, "armor bearers". Three former armor bearers tell the I-Team they were physically and sexual abused by Leonard. "It was a bloody experience," said one armor bearer who asked us to conceal his identity. "There was blood. There were like cuts in our flesh. Like our flesh was literally broken. I was just afraid for my life."

The armor bearers say they lived with Leonard and say their duties ranged from basic to bizarre. From cleaning his house and cutting his lawn to massaging Leonard seven days a week and serving him grapes. "I didn't control what time I woke up in the morning. I didn't control what time I went to bed. I didn't control what I ate," said one former armor bearer. Leonard described their duties by saying, "They help, just like everybody else. There's a family."

The armor bearers claim if they failed at their assignments, they were beaten and tortured by Leonard. "Smacking the face, punching in the chest, whipping with a belt, whipping with the extension cord…" said one former armor bearer. One former armor bearer, who showed the I-Team his scars, maintains he received, "a hundred lashes" from Leonard for missing five o'clock prayer.

Ayanna Stinson was married to Leonard. She says she witnessed the abuse. In one case, she says Leonard grabbed the private parts of an armor bearer. "He had this young man. He hadn't been in our house, maybe three weeks. This man was doubled over, screaming and he's telling him, 'shut your mouth, shut your mouth, don't you make no noise'. And I looked at him and said, 'What are you doing?' He said, 'you go back in the room.'"

Leonard denied he ever abused the armor bearers, but added, "Yeah, I beat my kids and I have smacked some people." Leonard says he doesn't regret anything he has done to the armor bearers.

The former armor bearers tell the I-Team, there was a code of silence. "He tells you, don't tell nobody. Don't tell nobody I'm beating you," said one armor bearer. "We didn't tell anybody. We told nobody and that's why there was no limit to what he felt like he could do to us."

The armor bearers question why they stayed and so does Pastor Leonard. "If an allegation is true and you really believe that and you thought that was true, why didn't you go to authorities? Let the law handle it. If you've been abused, if you've been mishandled, if you've been, go. That's what I'd do," said Leonard.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police say no armor bearers have come forward to file a police report. The former armor bearers tell the I-Team they maintained their silence out of shame from the alleged sexual abuse and fear of being ostracized. One former armor bearer said, "I have to really take responsibility in my role. I stayed, you know. I allowed it."

While some have chosen to leave, others remain loyal to Leonard and his ministry continues to grow. Leonard maintains he oversees eight other churches in the Carolinas, Florida, Texas and New Jersey. Here in Charlotte, 13 acres have been cleared for a new Church of Philadelphia on Neal Road. Leonard has not been charged with any crime and continues preaching.

Those who've left say they're grateful to God to be gone. One former armor bearer told the I-Team, "God is love. This is not love. We know this is not love. This is something perverted and this is not God."

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