Police: N. Charleston student ministry leader charged with assaulting 10 girls
NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - North Charleston Police have charged a man with more than a dozen counts after investigating claims he had touched underage girls without their consent.
Vernon Willis, 26, faces 13 counts of second-degree assault and battery, according to jail records.
Police say detectives were able to identify 10 victims ranging in age from 13 to 16 years old.
A release from the police department states Willis is a student ministry leader at the Seacoast Church Dream Center, which provides resources and opportunities to low-income or to the homeless.
Three people outside of the Seacoast Church North Charleston campus Friday said they had no idea about this arrest. Two of them were working at the Dream Center and one of them said, “I hope it wasn’t happening when we were here.”
Lowcountry attorney Mark Peper, who represents some of the victims, said Seacoast Church placed Willis on administrative leave in December after multiple minors reported being touched inappropriately while attending a youth group. Peper said Seacoast notified its families on Dec. 14 that he had been terminated and urged families to report any concerns to Seacoast executive team members.
Peper released the following statement in the case:
Immediately upon being retained by these families, The Peper Law Firm initiated an investigation into the acts of Mr. Willis and Seacoast Church. Our investigation confirmed that Seacoast Church allowed Mr. Willis unfettered access to one-on-one contact with multiple female minors without any supervision, all while acting within the course and scope of his employment. Further, Seacoast had direct knowledge of his proclivity to use his role as youth pastor to unlawfully touch and seclude minor females on the church campus as far back as 2020, yet continued his employ without providing any training or supervision. Seacoast Church had the ability to protect these innocent children and purposely failed to do so. This is intolerable, and the families intend to hold Mr. Willis and Seacoast responsible for their actions and inactions.
Seacoast Church Executive Director Margaret Little also released a statement Friday afternoon on behalf of the church:
As a place of worship and a home to so many families in the community, Seacoast Church is heartbroken by a former employee’s inexcusable and indefensible actions. We are grateful for the young women who shared their story, which allowed us to put an end to this behavior and want to thank these students and their families for being brave and coming forward.
On December 5, 2022, an initial report was made to Seacoast of inappropriate interactions with a minor by a member of staff at the North Charleston campus.
We immediately placed that employee on leave and barred the employee from campus while we investigated the report. We concluded that the employee had clearly violated our code of conduct. The employee was terminated in less than 48 hours. We reported the incident and information we had gathered to law enforcement.
Within the week, Seacoast leaders informed North Charleston campus students that the employee had been terminated for violating our code of conduct. Three days later, all parents of students at the campus were informed of the termination, offered resources, and the opportunity to meet with leadership. Within the same week, we connected all families of victims with counseling resources and the case number of the active investigation and contact information for North Charleston law enforcement. Since then, Seacoast leadership has hosted a Parent Night to discuss the matter openly with campus parents and concerned church members. Additionally, we have engaged an attorney to conduct an independent internal investigation of the matter.
Throughout this time, North Charleston law enforcement has been conducting an investigation. We have unreservedly supported law enforcement in their efforts, and part of this support has meant that we limited our communication while the investigation is active.
We will continue ongoing work to ensure all students can worship freely in safe and protected spaces. As leaders, we are grieved over the actions of a former staff member. Our commitment to the church and community is to continue to operate in transparency and support the victims and their families of this situation in their healing process.
If you or a loved one have been impacted by the actions of this former employee, please contact Officer Steinbrunner with North Charleston Police Department at 843-740-2852 or Margaret Little, Executive Director, Seacoast Church at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Police say Willis turned himself into detectives Friday.
He was being held at the Al Cannon Detention Center. His bond was set at $260,000.
correction: An earlier report from law enforcement referenced Willis as a youth pastor. The North Charleston Police Department has since clarified that Willis was a student ministry leader.
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