A New Jersey youth pastor has been arrested and charged with blackmailing young boys across four states to get them to record and send videos of themselves performing sexual acts, authorities say.
Thirty-year-old Sean Higgins, who serves as a youth pastor and music leader at Harbor Baptist Church in Hainesport, a suburb of Philadelphia, was taken into custody last Thursday and charged with 28 criminal counts that include first-degree aggravated sexual assault and manufacturing child pornography.
According to Burlington County Prosecutor Scott Coffina, Higgins has been charged with “coaxing underage boys on social media to send him nude pictures and videos.”
The youth pastor is said to have used those nude pictures and videos to “blackmail his victims into performing sexual acts on themselves for his enjoyment.”
“When a boy would send a nude photo of himself, Higgins would instantly transform and warn the child, ‘I’ve got you,’ and threaten to circulate that photo if the child did not engage in additional sexual acts on camera for Higgins’s sick gratification,” Coffina said in a statement. “The desperation of these young boys who were put in this position by this predator is truly heartbreaking.”
According to the prosecutor, the six identified victims range in age from 12 to 15. The boys reside in Alabama, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. The youth pastor’s crimes do not involve any members of his congregation or the church’s school.
Higgins also serves as a teacher at Harbor Baptist Academy, a private K-12 school that has about 75 students enrolled.
A phone call from The Christian Post to the church seeking comment on Higgins’ charges went unanswered. A response was not received by press time.
According to its website, the church is pastored by Pat Higgins and was founded in 1997 by Dennis Higgins. An online obituary for Dennis Higgins, who died in 2019, describes Sean and Pat Higgins as his sons.
An investigation revealed that Higgins posed online as a teenage girl and used social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram to start conversations with his young male victims. According to Coffina, Higgins identified himself to the young boys as a girl named Julie Miller.
The prosecutor states that Higgins would establish a rapport with his victims and urge them to trade photographs. While Higgins would send pictures of an unidentified female teenager, he received nude pictures from his boy victims.
After receiving those photos, Higgins would take a screenshot of the victims’ friends lists that were visible on their social media accounts and threaten to send the nude photos to the victims’ friends if they did not comply with his demands.
The prosecutor said that in most cases, Higgins demanded that the victims go into a bathroom, put their phones on the floor at an angle pointing upward and told them to perform sexual acts on themselves all the while Higgins recorded their acts.
Higgins faces six counts of first-degree manufacturing of child sexual abuse materials, one count of first-degree aggravated sexual assault, five counts of second-degree distribution of child sex abuse materials, one count of second-degree sexual assault, six counts of third-degree child abuse material possession, six counts of endangering the welfare of a child, one count of fourth-degree criminal sexual contact, one count of fourth-degree obstruction and one count of fourth-degree contempt.
“These charges underscore the importance of parents monitoring their children’s internet activity, and also having those frank and uncomfortable conversations about the dangers of sharing naked photos or other embarrassing images of themselves,” Coffina added in his statement. “Cyberspace can be scary, but vigilance and simple common sense are effective defenses against online predators.”
Authorities were alerted to Higgins’ actions after a child in Berks County, Pennsylvania, reported to Snapchat that he was forced to send nude photos to an unknown female who blackmailed him. Additionally, a boy in Alabama reported the interaction with Higgins to law enforcement in his state.
An investigation was conducted by Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office High-Tech Crimes Unit with help from law enforcement agencies in Pennsylvania, Alabama and New Jersey as well as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.