HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — UPDATE (Feb. 6, 2018):
City of Jeremie, Haiti after Hurricane Matthew, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. (MGN)
James Arbaugh, a former Mennonite missionary from Stuarts Draft, pleaded guilty on February 6 to a charge of illicit sexual conduct for years of sexual contact with boys in Haiti.
Arbaugh signed a guilty plea in Harrisonurg's District Court and will face sentencing on June 13.
The charge, defined in the US Code as "Engaging in Illicit Sexual Conduct in Foreign Places," carries a maximum sentence of 30 years in prison.
According to court documents, Arebaugh returned to the U.S. in 2017 after someone witnessed him "engaging in inappropriate sexual contact" with a child in Haiti and confronted him about it.
Arebaugh had a photo of that child, who was the son of a church pastor in Haiti, on his computer, which he showed to police. In interviews with law enforcement, he said he engaged in sexual acts with the boy when he was about five years old.
Once he was back in the country, he confessed to his counselor that he had engaged in sexual behavior with children while in Haiti, and his counselor filed a report with Child Protective Services the next day.
Two months later, in November, he was arrested.
Arbaugh regularly traveled from the U.S. to Haiti from at least 2008 to 2017, where he traveled to communities throughout the nation, including remote villages, evangelizing and showing Christian-themed movies.
However, behind the scenes, prosecutors said Arbaugh was befriending boys in the communities, grooming them for sexual contact "so that one day his victims would be open to more significant sexual contact," and then engaging in sexual contact with the minors.
Arbaugh told law enforcement officers in various interviews that he had sexual contact with at least 15 minors in Haiti.
That contact included fondling and oral sex, from which he stated he received sexual gratification.
However, the evidence presented against Arebaugh mainly centered around the one child who a witness caught Arebaugh with, which resulted in just the one charge.
Arbaugh is being represented by Erin Trodden.
ORIGINAL STORY (Dec. 8, 2017):
Federal authorities have arrested a Christian missionary from Stuarts Draft who allegedly told a counselor and investigators that he had sexual contact with boys in Haiti.
If the allegations are proven, James Arbaugh, formerly of the Virginia town of Stuarts Draft, would be only the latest missionary to take advantage of Haiti's extensive poverty and anemic rule of law to abuse vulnerable youngsters.
A federal affidavit filed by a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations says a counselor in Virginia reported Arbaugh to authorities in September after he allegedly disclosed sexual contact with boys. The affidavit alleges he told investigators in subsequent interviews that he "groomed" or had sexual contact including oral sex with at least 21 boys. One 5-year-old boy he allegedly molested was the son of a pastor in Jeremie, a city devastated last year by Hurricane Matthew.
"Arbaugh described sexual acts that took place with at least 15 minors which would be considered illicit sexual conduct," special agent Tami Ketcham wrote in the affidavit.
Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said Arbaugh is in federal custody.
Authorities have 30 days to indict Arbaugh, ask a judge for an extension or dismiss the charges, according to Brian McGinn, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in the western district of Virginia.
It wasn't immediately clear if Arbaugh has a lawyer.
Arbaugh lived in Haiti for at least a decade and describes himself on a blog as a missionary with a group called "Walking Together for Christ."
According to "The Mennonite," in 2015, Walking Together for Christ Haiti became an independent nonprofit organization. Members of its board of directors came from four Mennonite congregations in Virginia: Lindale Mennonite Church, Linville, Virginia; Mountain View Mennonite Church (which withdrew from Virginia Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Church USA in February 2017); Waynesboro Mennonite Church and Zion Hill Mennonite Church, Singers Glen, Virginia.
Lynn Suter, VMMissions Director of Operations and International Ministries, said that Arbaugh returned to the United States to receive professional counseling for unnamed “sexual sins.”
Teams of missionaries are a very common sight on U.S. flights to Haiti. For decades, they have done vital work running a network of hospitals, orphanages, schools and food-distribution sites in the hemisphere's poorest country.
But over the years, some foreign missionaries have been arrested for sexually abusing children. Some have worked in Haiti's poorly regulated orphanages, where many youths are not orphans at all, but sent by parents who can't support them.
"I expect that what we're seeing is just the tip of the iceberg," said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Boston-based advocacy group Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti.
Concannon said the Haitian government needs to do a far better job of protecting its most vulnerable citizens, but the first line of defense against sexual predators preying on children should be the church groups that send missionaries overseas in the first place.
"They need to step up to ensure they are not supporting child abusers," he said.
On his blog, Arbaugh has photo galleries that show him lying on what appears to be a beach with naked or half-naked children. He described himself as an evangelist and religious film producer.
“VMMissions strongly condemns the abuse Mr. Arbaugh has confessed and is alleged to have committed. We are heartsick for the victims and for the grievous misrepresentation of Christ and his church by someone who should have been trustworthy,” wrote Suter in a Nov. 30 email.
Arbaugh is being held without bond at the Central Virginia Regional Jail.
The affidavit, which was published by The News Leader and can be seen below, alleges that he would swim naked with Haitian youngsters while traveling around the country, "and at times genital skin-to-skin touching would take place beneath the water."
A spokesman for the Haitian National Police could not be contacted for comment. A website for the group "Walking Together for Christ Haiti" was not functional.