The Black Collar Crime Series relies on public news stories and publicly available information for its content. If any incorrect information is found, please contact Bruce Gerencser. Nothing in this post should be construed as an accusation of guilt. Those accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty.
Verrnon Willis, a student ministry leader at the Seacoast Church Dream Center in North Charleston, South Carolina, stands accused of inappropriately touching ten church girls aged twelve to sixteen.
Authorities in South Carolina say a former student ministry leader is facing more than a dozen assault charges for inappropriately touching young girls.
According to North Charleston authorities, Vernon Tyrell Willis, 26, has been arrested and charged with 13 counts of second-degree assault and battery.
Willis is accused of touching underage girls without their consent while he was a student ministry leader for the Seacoast Church Dream Center.
Police say detectives were able to identify 10 victims ranging in age from 13 to 16 years old.
Lowcountry attorney Mark Peper, who represents some of the victims, said Seacoast Church placed Willis on administrative leave and subsequently terminated him in December 2022 after multiple minors reported being touched inappropriately while attending a youth group.
However, the law firm initiated an investigation that revealed the church allowed Willis access to one-on-one contact with multiple female minors without any supervision, according to Peper.
The attorney stated that Seacoast had knowledge of Willis’ proclivity to use his role to unlawfully touch and seclude minor females on the church campus as far back as 2020.
Seacoast Church Executive Director Margaret Little said the team is heartbroken, calling Willis’ actions inexcusable and indefensible. She said the church is grateful for the young women who shared their stories, which allowed them to put an end to such behavior.
According to Little, Willis was immediately placed on leave and barred from campus once an initial report came in, with him being terminated in less than 48 hours after they found he clearly violated the church’s code of conduct.
The church said it notified all parents of students regarding the situation and offered resources along with working with law enforcement.
Seacoast Church Executive Director Margaret Little released a statement 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.
Note that the church investigated the claims before they called law enforcement. The church needs to be reminded that they are legally obligated to call law enforcement IMMEDIATELY when there are allegations of sexual misconduct. Not wait until you have your ducks in order, IMMEDIATELY.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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