Authorities recently apprehended a registered sex offender in Florida who was using the YouVersion Bible app to target teenage girls. The incident highlights the need for parents to be vigilant about their children’s smartphone use, no matter how innocent a particular app might seem.
“There’s a world of nasty people who want your children, and open platforms give them an open door to them,” said Rev. Russell Meyer, as reported by ABC Action News. Meyer is a Lutheran pastor over two local churches not connected to the case.
Registered Sex Offender Targets Youth Group
Douglas Earl Kersey is a 50-year-old man from Tampa who started using the Bible app to befriend underage girls at an unidentified church in Hillsborough County. Kersey went under the name, “Doug K,” and used an email address that he failed to register with law enforcement, something that is a third-degree felony for a registered sex offender.
Detective Theresa Grooms, who worked the case, said the incident “was unheard of for me and I’ve been with the sheriff’s office 21 years and been an investigator, school resource deputy. I did not even know that they could friend request and converse on that app.”
For those who might not be familiar with this feature of the Bible app, if you go to the home page, you will see an icon of a person in the upper right hand corner.
When you tap the icon, the app takes you to a page where you have the option to add friends.
Clicking the “Add Friends” button takes you to a screen where you can either create an account in the app or continue using your Facebook account.
“Too often we hear about something terrible that happened to a child, and it was too late,” said Meyer. Thankfully, that was not the case in this instance, due to the attentiveness of a member of the church. “She’s the hero,” said Meyer. “To me, she’s the real hero.”
When the church member noticed a man was befriending multiple underage girls in the youth group, she googled his name and discovered his criminal background. The church member then alerted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to the situation. This was in late September. Authorities searched Kersey’s phone, where they found the Bible app open. Kersey admitted to “actively using” the app and to concealing his new email address.
“Simply to say ‘Well it’s a Bible program, nothing could go wrong’ misunderstands who is allowed to use them,” observed Meyer. Sadly, in this day and age, parents cannot assume their children are safe online, even on a Bible app. Detective Grooms advised parents to be proactive about checking their children’s phone use and online activity: “Be aware, check their social media, check their phones, check their email addresses, check their friends. Then you have to double and quadruple check.”
WKRG News reports that the charges against Kersey are “two counts of failure of sexual offender to register and violation of probation from prior out-of-county arrests.” ABC says police are investigating whether or not Kersey contacted minors via other apps.