A Southern Baptist megachurch in South Carolina says it is not responsible for actions of a former volunteer criminally accused of sexually assaulting preschool boys inside a church bathroom while security cameras rolled.
Seven families filed a lawsuit Feb. 19 blaming NewSpring Church — a 14-campus multi-site congregation launched originally as a church plant by the South Carolina Baptist Convention – for allowing Jacop Hazlett to volunteer in its daycare despite past concerns about his interactions with children at two previous large churches also affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Hazlett, 29, is in jail since his December arrest facing multiple felony charges after allegedly molesting numerous preschool boys over a period of 90 days inside a bathroom at the North Charleston campus of NewSpring Church.
The parents of seven alleged victims say NewSpring Church is familiar with potential risk, because Hazlett started attending and working with preschoolers about the time a former youth pastor was charged with soliciting sex with a minor.
The lawsuit says NewSpring nevertheless placed children in Hazlett’s care after a single interview, apparently unaware he was asked to leave both Cove Church and Elevation Church multi-site megachurches in North Carolina due to concerns about his behavior around children.
The families also say the church did not properly train volunteers assigned to monitor live feeds of about 40 video surveillance cameras positioned around the church campus.
After learning last November that Hazlett had allegedly sexually abused a 3 or 4 year-old boy during Sunday services, NewSpring reviewed 90 days of archived security video and found 14 separate instances where Hazlett allegedly abused boys in the day-care bathroom since March 2018.
In a response filed Feb. 25, the church said it ran a screening process that included a criminal background check and found no red flags before allowing Hazlett to undergo training and volunteer.
After finding “the appearance of inappropriate conduct” in video footage, attorneys say, NewSpring Church immediately notified law enforcement, took steps to prevent Hazlett from volunteering in any capacity and fully cooperated with the police investigation.
The defense claims any damages suffered by plaintiffs “were the result of an intervening or criminal act of a third person” that “could not be foreseen” by church leaders. The answer also cites both federal and state law limiting liability of volunteers in a non-profit organization.
The lawsuit claims NewSpring Church is “vicariously liable” for assault and battery by Hazlett while acting as its agent authorized to be around children. It accuses the church of gross negligence and recklessness for failing to properly screen, train and supervise volunteers.
It accuses Hazlett and NewSpring of kidnapping by taking children into the bathroom against their will and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
The lawsuit asks why no one at NewSpring noticed Hazlett was molesting children on a live camera feed purportedly monitored in real time from March 2018 until last Nov. 26. “NewSpring either did not monitor the live feeds or ignored the abuse that was depicted on the live security feed,” lawyers said in the complaint.
Some of the children involved in the lawsuit claim abuse on occasions no longer available on video because footage was deleted after 90 days.
The parents seek actual and punitive damages and “further relief as the court and jury shall deem just and proper.”