Amid lawsuits concerning oversight of a daycare volunteer caught sexually abusing children, at least three other men who volunteered at NewSpring Church in South Carolina in the past have also been accused of sexual misconduct with minors.
A report published Wednesday by The Post and Courier newspaper in South Carolina outlines allegations and charges against three former NewSpring volunteers and one former staff member.
Affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, NewSpring has 14 campuses across South Carolina and has a weekly attendance of about 20,000. It's regarded as one of the fastest growing churches in the United States.
One of the men featured in the report is Jacop Hazlett, who drew headlines last year when he was caught on camera abusing a 3-year-old child inside a NewSpring daycare bathroom. The 28-year-old Hazlett has been accused of abusing at least 14 children in a span of three months up until he was arrested last November.
Hazlett's actions are at the center of lawsuits facing NewSpring. He faces nine counts of criminal sexual conduct with a minor and five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor.
The litigation claims that the church failed to adequately supervise and monitor Hazlett’s actions and that they did not do enough to look into Hazlett’s history before allowing him to serve.
Hazlett had previously volunteered at two churches in North Carolina but was asked to leave both places over concerns about his behavior around kids.
When he was 17, Hazlett was accused of sexual misconduct with a child younger than 13. He admitted to “kissing and touching” the boy “between his legs,” according to Columbiana County Ohio juvenile court documents obtained by The Post and Courier.
Although he was charged as a minor with gross sexual imposition, he was not required to register as a sex offender.
Although NewSpring’s policy is to work with a third party to run criminal background searches on its volunteers, the juvenile records regarding Hazlett's crime are not considered public records in Ohio. Therefore, they are not searchable in a public search of the state’s judicial database.
But Hazlett is not the first NewSpring volunteer to face sexual misconduct allegations and charges.
According to a Florence Police Department incident report and affidavit obtained by The Post and Courier, a 20-year-old volunteer named Leo La Salle Comissiong admitted to investigators in April 2016 that he fondled and kissed a 15-year-old boy in “a dark room” at the New Spring campus in Florence.
Comissiong was initially charged with third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor. However, The Post and Courier notes that Comissiong pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of assault and was given three years probation.
Reports from the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office indicate that about a month after the Comissiong incident, 23-year-old Chaz McKinsey Wood, a NewSpring Anderson volunteer, admitted to sexually abusing a 10-year-old boy he met through his work at the church.
Wood was charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor and committing a lewd act on a minor.
According to The Post and Courrier, Wood pleaded guilty to a reduced charge and was given a 10-year suspended sentence and five years probation. Wood was also required to register as a sex offender.
In February 2018, Caleb Lide Jordan, a former youth pastor at NewSpring’s North Charleston campus, was let go after he was charged with counts of exploitation of a minor, which include solicitation of a minor for sex.
Jordan worked as a full-time employee at NewSpring from August 2011 until September 2015. A church spokesperson told The Post and Courier that Jordan served as a volunteer after stepping down from his paid position.
As for Jordan, he was accused of misconduct while away from church property and his charges remain pending.
“Jordan’s employment with NewSpring was terminated in 2015 and any issues involving Jordan have nothing to do with NewSpring,” said Suzanne Swift, the church's communications director, in a statement to The Post and Courier.
It was about a month after the church released Jordan from volunteer duties that Hazlett was brought in to serve as a volunteer at the Charleston congregation. Hazlett served there for about eight months before a complaint was received that he had abused a child.
Each time a volunteer was caught up in the sexual misconduct charge, The Post and Courier reports that NewSpring was “measured in its response” and offered “nearly identical explanations in every case.”
As for Hazlett, the church has maintained that it cannot be held liable for Hazlett’s actions. NewSpring filed an official response with the court responding to one of the lawsuits in late February.
The church contends that its liability as a nonprofit is limited because of the South Carolina Charitable Funds Act. The church also stresses that since Hazlett was a volunteer, its liability is limited by the “Volunteer Protection Act of 1997.”
The church maintains that as soon as concerns regarding Hazlett were made, staff took the appropriate course of action and called authorities.
“NewSpring performed a screening process that included a criminal background check that showed no prior records and one on one interview before Defendant Hazlett then went through training and was allowed to volunteer,” the official response reads.
Swift told The Post and Courier that the church’s screening process includes verification of Social Security Number, address history, national sex offender search and another review for criminal convictions.
The third-party company that NewSpring uses to perform the background checks is called Protect My Ministry, which claims to work with over 25,000 religious institutions across the U.S.
Swift previously said last year that NewSpring is open to revising its screening process. She explained that the church is “evaluating [its] processes and procedures internally” while an external consultant would be invited to help determine if changes need to be made.
The Christian Post reached out to Swift for comment on The Post and Courier report and for clarification on whether changes to NewSpring’s screening process have been made.
Swift told CP on Friday that while they are unable to comment on pending lawsuits or the ongoing investigation, "NewSpring Church is voluntarily creating a Healing Assistance Fund that will be available to assist families affected by the accused’s alleged actions. This fund will be completely funded by NewSpring and will be available to both the children and parents.
She added: "It is NewSpring’s prayer that the families who utilize this resource will be able to experience short and long term healing. Through a verified and trusted outside company, we perform criminal background checks which includes SSN verification and address history, National Criminal Database Search, National Sex Offender Search, re-verification of criminal records and a check for alias names.
"Hazlett's background check was returned to NewSpring showing no records found," Swift emphasized. "We are continuing to evaluate our policies and procedures internally for volunteers joining our ministry to do our best to prevent anything like this from ever happening again."