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Brazilian church leader in Milford faces rape charge

By Maria Sacchetti and Benjamin Paulin
Globe Staff And Globe Correspondent / February 15, 2009
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The leader of a small Brazilian church in Milford is facing child rape and sexual assault charges in a case involving a teenage girl, stunning the immigrant community and rallying supporters to the pastor's defense.

Ana Paula Almeida, the leader of Plenitude of God Ministries, a storefront Protestant church on Main Street, is accused of sexually assaulting a girl from the church youth group from 2006 to 2008, beginning when the girl was 14, according to Milford police.

Almeida, 31, pleaded not guilty last week in Milford District Court to one count of statutory rape and four counts of indecent assault and battery on a child 14 or older, and was released on $500 bail, said spokesman Timothy Connolly of the Worcester district attorney's office. She is restricted to her home in Milford until she gets a GPS monitoring device.

Yesterday she and a supporter said the allegations are false, and stem from an internal power struggle in the church to discredit her leadership.

"I know I'm not guilty," said Almeida. "I'm a preacher. I have a whole congregation."

An immigrant from Sao Paulo, Almeida founded the tiny church more than three years ago and holds regular services and community activities with about 100 congregants.

Colleagues said she is an energetic and respected leader who came to the United States in the past decade and worked her way up to lead the church.

But police allege that Almeida abused her authority. The girl, who is now 16, and her parents went to police last week to file a complaint, saying that Almeida sexually assaulted the girl 11 times at Almeida's home from spring 2006 through last summer.

"There's a person in a position of trust and a position of authority, at least societal authority," said Police Chief Thomas O'Loughlin. "There was a violation of that trust."

Yesterday, the investigation continued as police detectives tried to track down and interview other girls in the youth group, O'Loughlin said.

Almeida declined to comment at length and referred questions to friend and spokesman Jehozadak Pereira, who is also the editor of A Noticia, a Portuguese-language weekly about the Brazilian community.

He said through a translator that a relative of the girl clashed with Almeida over church leadership, culminating in December when Almeida removed the woman from her duties, upsetting the relative and her supporters.

"They had promised her they were going to seek revenge," he said. "If they knew this was going on for so long, why only now do they come forward?"

For other Brazilians in Milford, the allegations raised concern about trust inside their tight-knit community. They hoped it would not tarnish others' opinions of the religious or immigrant community.

"I'm very sad," said Pastor Samuel Neto of Igreja do Evangelho Quadrangular in Milford, who fielded telephone calls from people who had learned of the arrest. "I am just praying to God to make it easier."

Almeida is due in court for a pretrial conference on Feb. 27.

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