In September 2022, a federal judge in Missouri sentenced 38-year-old former youth pastor Jesse E. Vargas to 13 years and 4 months in prison for sexually abusing an underage St. Louis girl in 2013.
According to court records, the defendant, originally from New York state, met the girl when she was just 11 years old at a Christian youth summer camp in Michigan, where he worked as a counselor.
Over the next few years, the pastor visited the child’s home and developed a close relationship with her family. Under the guise of spiritual leadership, Vargas coerced the minor into multiple acts of sexual abuse and manipulated her to keep quiet for years.
In March of 2022, Vargas pleaded guilty to two felony counts: enticement of a minor and travel with the intent to engage in illicit sexual contact. In addition to a lengthy prison term, Judge Ronnie L. White also ordered Vargas to pay $146,594 in restitution to the survivor, who is now 24 years old.
Manipulation and Trust: A Cautionary Tale
Although the victim met Vargas when she was 11 years old, the sexual abuse did not begin until four years later, in January of 2013. According to court records, Vargas traveled from his home in Nassau County, New York, to Missouri to deliver a sermon at the girl’s church in Hazelwood. During this trip, the victim’s family offered to host Vargas in their home, where he sexually assaulted the girl for the first time.
Two months later, in March of 2013, Vargas returned to Missouri and abused the victim a second time. Then, in June of that same year, Vargas convinced the girl’s family to allow her to travel unaccompanied to New York. Sadly, the sexual abuse continued there. Over the next few months, Vargas sent hundreds of sexually explicit images, videos, and messages to the girl as he continued to groom the relationship.
At the sentencing hearing, the victim stated that Vargas had spent years manipulating her and had convinced her to push away her closest friends, family members, and spiritual leaders. The victim also said that she had dropped out of high school due to trauma related to the abuse.
After sentencing, the victim spoke with the media about how Vargas used manipulation tactics like love bombing and flattery to take advantage of her vulnerable position as a lonely and trusting teenage girl.
The case was brought forward through a joint effort between the FBI and Project Safe Childhood, an initiative from the Department of Justice that seeks to fight the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation. Workers with Project Safe Childhood team up with federal, state, and local authorities to prosecute individuals and identify and support victims of child abuse.
Filing a Lawsuit Against Sexual Abuse in Missouri
Although the criminal courts handle child sexual abuse cases, many victims and their families seek punitive justice through the civil court system, especially when minors are assaulted by teachers, counselors, care professionals, and religious leaders.
This year, a victim filed a lawsuit against a Christian boarding school in Cedar County, Missouri, where she allegedly suffered abuse at the hands of staff while underage. If the lawsuit is successful, the plaintiff hopes to hold the school’s leadership accountable for allowing the abuse.
In Missouri courts, victims of child sex abuse can file lawsuits against their abuser or the institution where the abuse occurred. Currently, the statute of limitations to file a claim is ten years after the victim’s 21st birthday.