HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — James Arbaugh, a former Mennonite missionary from Stuarts Draft, has been sentenced to 23 years in prison for engaging in illicit sexual contact with a child in Haiti.
City of Jeremie, Haiti after Hurricane Matthew, on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2016. (MGN)
Arbaugh pleaded guilty earlier this year to one count of traveling in foreign commerce from the U.S. to Haiti to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a child.
He had spent years doing missionary work in Haiti from 2008 to 2017, but, according to court documents, he 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.
In interviews with police, Arbaugh said he engaged in sexual acts with the boy — who was the son of a church pastor in the country – when the boy was about five years old.
The abuse occurred in Jeremie, a city devastated by Hurricane Matthew.
When Arbaugh was back in the U.S., 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.
In November, he was arrested.
He had spent nearly a decade traveling to communities throughout Haiti, including remote villages, evangelizing and showing Christian-themed movies.
He was acting 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.
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. He confessed, specifically, to touching a minor's genitals under the minor's clothing.
The other contact mentioned in interviews included fondling and oral sex, from which he stated he received sexual gratification.
However, the evidence presented against Arbaugh mainly centered around the one child who a witness caught Arbaugh with, which resulted in just the one charge.
Brian Benczkowski leads the Justice Department's criminal division.
“James Arbaugh was a wolf in sheep’s clothing: he posed as a selfless missionary when in reality he was exploiting his position to prey on and sexually abuse vulnerable children in one of the most impoverished areas of the world,” said Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski. “Today’s sentencing is a testament to the unwavering commitment of our prosecutors and law enforcement partners to hold sexual predators like Arbaugh accountable for their deplorable crimes.”
“The defendant abused his position of trust to prey on vulnerable victims, and their lives will never be the same,” said U.S. Attorney Cullen. “As this case indicates, our office is committed to working with our federal, state, and local law enforcement partners to identify and vigorously prosecute those who exploit children.”
The case, which was investigated by Homeland Security Investigations and the Harrisonburg Police Department, was brought as part of Project Safe Childhood.