NEW HAVEN, Conn. - 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 in Greytown, which helps AIDS victims. Authorities say Osmun molested five children under the age of 6, some multiple times, and gave them candy during a period between 2010 and this year.
"Mr. Osmun is charged with a shocking breach of the power entrusted to him as a Peace Corps volunteer," Assistant Attorney General Lanny Breuer said upon Osmun's arrest.
Osmun's attorney, federal public defender Sarah Merriam, declined to comment.
The Peace Corps said it was made aware of the allegations after Osmun resigned in May. The humanitarian agency, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary, said it immediately notified authorities and will continue to cooperate with them.
Every applicant undergoes a background check, the organization stressed.
"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.
In 2007, former Peace Corps volunteer Timothy Ronald Obert of Santa Cruz, Calif., was sentenced to more than four years in prison after admitting he had sex with a 14-year-old Costa Rican boy. Obert was fired from the Peace Corps.
Osmun was charged with engaging in illicit sexual conduct in foreign places. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison. He did not enter a plea Thursday in an initial court appearance and remains jailed.
On his web page, Osmun described himself as a "self-professed Africa lover" who is passionate about helping nonprofits that work in that continent. He said he also worked with orphans in Kenya before his Peace Corps assignment.
With the Peace Corps, Osmun worked at the Umvoti AIDS Center that provides support to residents affected by the AIDS virus. The center declined to comment.
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 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.
Rekha Nathoo, director of the Children in Distress Network, of which the Umvoti AIDS 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.
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."
Peace Corps volunteers travel to other countries to provide hands-on assistance in areas including health education, information technology and environmental preservation. The Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 Americans to serve in 139 countries.