Church leader accused of luring teens in online photo scam
A church youth leader allegedly posted pictures online of himself dressed as a scantily clad woman to entice at least 50 teenage boys to send him explicit photographs
The 27-year-old man then threatened to make their photos public unless they sent him more revealing images.
In addition to boys aged 12 to 17 from some of the church’s nine congregations‚ the man’s alleged victims included pupils at a number of leading Cape Town boys’ schools. He presented himself as a sports photographer and a church youth worker.
The Hawks and the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) launched an investigation after the parents of a boy found evidence of the exchanges on their 14-year-old son’s cellphone and alerted church leaders.
The youth leader‚ a full-time employee of the church‚ was arrested in Rondebosch on Wednesday by Hawks cyber crime specialist Colonel Yolanda Gair‚ who flew to Cape Town from Pretoria with DHS investigator Johan Claassen.
The man’s cellphones‚ laptop‚ memory cards and a tablet were taken away for analysis.
Leaders of Common Ground Church then spent hours calling affected boys’ parents to tell them their sons had been targeted.
Senior pastor Ryan TerMorshuizen said: “As shocking as the news was‚ most parents took time to ask lots of questions so that they were empowered to help their children. There were feelings of betrayal expressed by those who new the alleged perpetrator‚ but also relief that he has been apprehended.”
The suspect‚ a police reservist in Rondebosch‚ appeared in the Wynberg Magistrate’s Court on Friday‚ charged with possession of child pornography and failing to report knowledge of the commission of a sexual offence with children. He was released on R1 000 bail.
Police spokesman Vishnu Naidoo said: “Additional charges will probably be added at a later stage as the investigation progresses.”
Steve Martin‚ the sub-Saharan Africa attaché for Homeland Security investigations‚ said the youth leader was alleged to have used Instagram and WhatsApp. “As these are US companies‚ whose platforms are being misused for criminal purposes‚ the SA Police Service requested DHS participation in the investigation.”
Claassen had assisted in gathering electronic evidence and providing computer forensic expertise as part of DHS’s “worldwide fight against online predators”.
Martin added: “By working with our South African law enforcement counterparts‚ no suspect is out of reach. This investigation is evidence of this fact.”
Speaking to TimesLIVE‚ TerMorshuizen said the three-week investigation leading to the arrest had been extremely difficult for church leaders working with the investigative team.
“Our primary concern was for the safety of the affected children. But if we had suspended [the youth leader] and warned our churches it could have compromised the investigation‚ and been construed as tipping him off so that he could get rid of the evidence‚” he said.
“On the other hand‚ it was likely that some of the teenagers in the church were going through an incredibly difficult time. In collaboration with the authorities‚ it was agreed to give the Hawks a short window period in which to act‚ so that other kids can be spared this ordeal in future.”
TerMorshuizen said church leaders had decided to open up about the investigation to TimesLIVE so there would not be any question of attempted cover-ups – and to make clear that the church itself was bringing the charges.
The suspect began working for the church as an intern in 2012 after a period as a volunteer leader. He went full-time from 2015 after finishing his Master's in environmental and geographical science at the University of Cape Town.
TerMorshuizen said the man was investigated two years ago when he sent a WhatsApp message to a teenager who had injured his genital area‚ requesting a photo.
“We immediately had him assessed by two therapists – one of whom we have on retainer - and we also asked for a report from an external forensic clinical psychologist‚” said the senior pastor. All had given the youth leader a clean bill of health.
The forensic psychologist’s report‚ seen by TimesLIVE‚ said: “It is my opinion that the incident … stems from inexperience and tendency to blur boundaries with subordinates. [The youth leader] seeks to establish himself as a friendly and approachable leader. I have no concerns regarding his capacity to deal with children or adolescents.”
TerMorshuizen revealed that it came to light during the recent investigation that two boys had approached the youth leader for advice about being extorted online. He had replied along the lines of‚ “You’d better just send the pictures and hope the person stops harassing you.”
The senior pastor said other steps the church had taken included informing principals of affected schools‚ setting up a hotline staffed by a “suitable professional”‚ for young people who had been; and getting an external expert to speak to church youth groups.
The youth leader has been suspended by the church‚ and his bail conditions forbid him from having contact with state witnesses.