Peace Corps condemns alleged abuse by volunteer

August 5, 2011 - 12:00 PM

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — The Peace Corps said Friday that a former volunteer's alleged sexual abuse of young girls in South Africa is "reprehensible" and the agency supports the vigorous prosecution of the case.

Thirty-one-year-old Jesse Osmun of Milford was arrested Thursday in Connecticut on federal charges of sexually abusing children at a center that helped AIDS victims. Authorities say Osmun molested five children under the age of 6, some multiple times, and gave them candy.

His attorney, federal public defender Sarah Merriam, declined to comment.

The Peace Corp said it was made aware of the allegations after Osmun resigned in May. The agency said it immediately notified authorities and will continue to cooperate with them.

The Peace Corp says every applicant undergoes a background check.

"The Peace Corps has no tolerance for abuse of any kind, and our deepest sympathies are with the victims," the agency said in a statement.

Osmun was charged with engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

Osmun, who was kept behind bars and did not enter a plea, described himself on his web page as a "self-professed Africa lover" who is passionate about helping nonprofits that work in Africa.

Peace Corps volunteers travel to other countries to help on issues including health education, information technology and environmental preservation.

Osmun worked at the Umvoti AIDS Center in Greytown, South Africa, that provides support to residents affected by the AIDS virus.

The center declined to comment.

Rekha Nathoo, director of the Children in Distress Network, of which the center is a member, said volunteers from abroad should arrive with police clearance from their own country.

"The selection and interviewing process needs to be more rigorous — not just from our side, but from the side where they are being sent," Nathoo said.

Nathoo said she was shocked by the allegations.

"Unfortunately, in South Africa, child abuse and child rape is among the worst in the world, and KwaZulu Natal is the worst hit," Nathoo said, referring to the province where the alleged abuse took place.

According to a federal criminal complaint, a teacher saw Osmun follow three young girls into a preschool building. The teacher went into the building and saw Osmun, who was in a toy room with the girls, appear startled and zip up his pants, authorities said.

The girls referred to Osmun as "uncle" and said he gave them candy for performing oral sex, prosecutors said.

Osmun initially denied any misconduct but later admitted he had molested children and provided a written confession, according to the criminal complaint. He admitted he engaged in sexual contact with three girls under age 6 for about a year, including one girl twice a week for about five months, authorities said.

The Peace Corps traces its roots to 1960, when then-U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged Michigan university students to serve their country by living and working in developing nations. From that inspiration, its website says, grew a federal government agency "devoted to world peace and friendship."

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Associated Press writer Nastasya Tay in Johannesburg, South Africa, contributed to this story.