Virginia Beach Catholic school rocked by parent abuse allegations, priest reassignment (2024)

VIRGINIA BEACH — As parents drove through the “drop-off lane” at St. John the Apostle Catholic School one morning last month, they were approached by a woman carrying a stack of flyers.

The woman was the mother of a student at the private school, and the paper she passed through their car windows contained a warning that there had been a “pedophile” among them who’d assaulted “at least” two female students — including her daughter.

The flyer named the alleged child molester — a Navy pilot and father of three St. John’s students — and informed parents of a previous child sex assault case involving him. It also urged parents of girls who may have spent time at the family’s house to question them.

“I’m providing this information, because if I had been made aware of the first charges and court case, my daughter may have been saved three years of anguish,” the flyer said.

“Everyone was talking about it,” said a father who received the flyer but didn’t want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the allegations. “Some people said they knew the story, some had parts of the story, and some had bad information.”

It turns out the man named in the flyer, 45-year-old Vincent Jakawich, was dead by the time it circulated. He’d driven to North Carolina and taken his own life a day or two before, according to multiple sources.

His death came as police were starting to — once again — investigate allegations he’d sexually assaulted a young female St. John’s student who was friends with one of his daughters, according to a spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

Jakawich’s body was discovered shortly before 9 a.m. May 9 in his Tesla, which was parked on the shoulder of Route 168 in Currituck County. An officer driving by saw the vehicle and stopped to check on it, said Currituck County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Kevin McCord. Jakawich’s death was ruled a suicide, McCord said.

It didn’t take long for matters to snowball after the flyer was distributed to St. John’s parents the following day by fellow parent Meredith Hatchell.

In it, she wrote that Jakawich had molested at least two students while they were visiting with his daughters. She also provided a link to online court information about when he was charged three years earlier with aggravated sexual battery of a child younger than 13, but was allowed to plead to a lesser charge.

Before the day was over, the school sent its own letter to parents about the allegations, and Jakawich’s widow, Marin, filed a criminal complaint against Hatchell, her once close friend. Much more fallout would come in the days and weeks that followed.

Marin Jakawich wrote in her complaint that Hatchell had sent screen shots of online court records involving her late husband to multiple people, distributed letters calling him a pedophile at the school and in their neighborhood and came to her house and verbally assaulted her and other family members.

“This is causing all of us extreme distress,” Marin Jakawich wrote. “We have left our home for a safe place.”

Five days later, Hatchell was arrested and charged with several misdemeanors, including harassment by computer, disorderly conduct, and trespassing, court records show. A charge of violating a protective order would later be added. Hatchell’s husband, Tim, also was charged with using a computer for harassment and violating a protective order, but he wasn’t arrested, according to the records.

A magistrate ordered Meredith Hatchell held without bond, and she spent a night in jail before being released. The case is scheduled for trial July 8 in Virginia Beach General District Court.

The Hatchells’ attorney, James Broccoletti, declined to comment, as did Kristin Paulding, a lawyer representing Marin Jakawich.

The fallout, however, didn’t stop with the criminal charges against the Hatchells. A week later, on May 17, the Diocese of Richmond posted a notice on its website in which it addressed the claims and how it was responding.

The diocese “recently learned of allegations of sexual abuse committed against students of St. John the Apostle School by an adult (now deceased),” the post said. “The appropriate civil authorities and law enforcement agencies are involved. The Diocese is also investigating to confirm whether the Diocese’s Safe Environment regulations or other policies were properly followed.”

The post went on to say that Father Rob Cole — the longtime pastor of St. John the Apostle Church and school — was placed on temporary leave while the matter was investigated. The school’s principal, Miriam Cotton, also was out, having decided to retire.

Less than a month later, on June 12, the diocese posted another announcement in which it reported that Bishop Barry C. Knestout had “determined that St. John the Apostle parish would benefit from new pastoral leadership. Fr. Rob Cole will no longer serve as pastor.”

“Bishop Knestout appreciates Fr. Cole’s dedication and service as the pastor to this community for more than 15 years,” the post said. “While this decision and transition will be difficult, the bishop appreciates the patience and support of the community.”

Much of St. John’s church community, however, was anything but supportive of the bishop’s decision, said Chris Magruder and Dom Raso, members of the church and its men’s rosary group.

Cole is beloved by the community, they said, and many were hurt by the decision to remove him. In a time when many Catholic churches are losing parishioners, St. John’s nearly tripled in size during Cole’s tenure, growing from about 1,200 families when he arrived to 3,300 today, they said.

The number of adults who enroll in its yearlong Rite of Christian Initiation program to become Catholics also grew, from about a half-dozen or so each year to about 40 to 50 now, the men said. Church facilities were expanded and improved, and the number of ministries serving the community increased to more than 70, they said.

“It just didn’t make sense,” Magruder, 31, a member of the parish for the past five years, said of how matters were handled by the diocese. “There was so little information, we didn’t know what to think.”

The lack of information was not only frustrating, Magruder and Raso said, parishioners also were concerned that it made it appear as if Cole had been involved in wrongdoing or a cover-up. And it didn’t seem to be in alignment with the bishop’s promise to address abuse allegations “quickly and transparently.”

“I would say the decisions made have been quick but certainly not transparent,” Magruder said.

On their rosary group website, the men have asked parishioners to sign a document in support of Cole, which by this week had garnered nearly 700 signatures, Magruder said. Hundreds of letters also have been hand-delivered to the rectory where Cole lives.

Cole didn’t respond to a message left for him at the church’s office last week. The diocese also didn’t respond to a request for more information.

A father with children at St. John’s school said the reaction from parents has been mixed. While many still support Cole and the principal, there are many who also agreed with the decision to replace them, he said.

The father said that while both were well liked and respected, when the families learned that school officials knew Jakawich had been accused of assaulting a St. John’s student years ago, they were stunned and felt the school should have done more to make sure it didn’t happen again.

He also said some of the families he’s talked with believe the Jakawich family should have been asked to leave St. John’s once school officials became aware of the allegations in the first incident, out of fairness to the girl involved — who initially stayed enrolled but later left — and to protect others.

In the first case, Jakawich was charged in April 2021 on a felony count of aggravated sexual battery of a victim younger than 13. The charge was considered “aggravated” because of her age. The girl reported the abuse occurred in May 2020, according to court records.

Jakawich was arrested and released on bond, with conditions requiring he have no contact with the victim and her family, stay away from St. John’s, and have no minor children in his home other than his own, the records state. When the victim later withdrew from the school, he sought to have the conditions amended to allow him to go on the property and for his daughters to be able to have friends over to their house, but the court denied it.

An investigation by Child Protective Services later concluded that the girl’s accusations were unfounded, the records show. Prosecutors also were concerned with conflicting evidence they’d received, and as a result, offered Jakawich a plea deal to a lesser charge of misdemeanor assault and battery, said Macie Allen, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Beach Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. The victim’s family agreed to the deal, she said.

Jakawich pleaded guilty to the lesser charge in June 2022, was given a one-year suspended jail sentence and ordered to remain on good behavior for a year.

The victim’s family informed the principal and Cole about the allegations even before Jakawich was charged, said attorney Kevin Biniazan, who’s representing the Hatchells in a potential civil lawsuit.

The girl continued to attend St. John’s for a while but later withdrew because she and her family were concerned not enough was being done to keep her from running into Jakawich, Biniazan said.

The Hatchells’ daughter, now 12, has alleged that Jakawich assaulted her when she was 9, Biniazan said. She told her parents May 8, and they contacted police that day, the lawyer said. Jakawich’s body was found the following day.

St. John’s parishioners were recently informed that a new pastor will take over in July, Magruder said. The diocese has not yet said where Cole will be reassigned.

Jane Harper,

Virginia Beach Catholic school rocked by parent abuse allegations, priest reassignment (2024)
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