Friday, July 31, 2009

Jason Hagg Sentenced to Probation for Sexual Assault

The 36-year-old former director of a Mountainside church youth group was sentenced yesterday to two years probation for his relationship with a 16-year-old girl he supervised.

Jason Hagg, the son of the church's spiritual leader and a married father of four young children, appeared before Superior Court Judge Joseph Donohue in a tie and navy blazer. About 10 relatives, along with Hagg's wife, lined the court's gallery in a silent show of support.

The judge said probation was appropriate because Hagg would benefit more from rehabilitation than from jail time. While the legal age of consent in New Jersey is 16, Hagg was charged because he held a supervisory position over the girl.

"He completely understands and has taken responsibility for this act, and understands the impact on his family," the judge said. "Mr. Hagg comes from a family of high moral qualities, and he has those same qualities. ... He is clearly very involved in his children's lives."

Hagg was arrested last year and charged with sexual assault. But as part of a negotiated deal, he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact. Besides two years of probation, he was ordered to pay fines and have no contact with the victim. Under Megan's Law, Hagg will also be required to register with police.

His attorney, Remi Spencer, described her client as a "devoutly religious man" who loves his wife and children. She said he has no prior criminal history, and community and church members submitted about 35 letters to the judge attesting to his good character.

"This case has taken a terrible toll, not just on Jason, but on his wife and his parents," Spencer told the judge. "The fact that the allegations are even out there is something that cannot be taken back ... the gossip mill can be far more painful for the person than the actual sentence."

Quoting biblical verses, the 16-year-old girl and her father each provided statements in court. Standing before the judge, the teenager said she was saddened to see "a church family broken up," but that her faith in Hagg was betrayed.

"He was my friend who I looked up to and trusted very much," she said. "It was a blur to me, a whole confusing mess."

In a letter read by the assistant prosecutor, the girl's father said after Hagg's arrest their family saw "relationships, friendships, trust, our church home for the past 32 years, suddenly cut off."

Hagg admitted in court that he groped the girl while he headed her church youth group, according to Assistant Prosecutor Scott Peterson.

The sexual contact with the teenager took place on multiple occasions in April and May of 2008, at the Mountainside Gospel Chapel and at his home in Piscataway, Peterson said.

Detectives learned of the incidents after a friend of the victim informed a school official at the Berkeley Heights high school the teens attended. The official at Governor Livingston High School then contacted police.

Police arrested Hagg while he was at work as a deliveryman with United Rental in Piscataway. He was released from jail after making $100,000 bail last year.

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