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These women say a Western NY pastor, Christian camp president abused them as teenagers

More than 16 women across the U.S. allege Wayne Aarum's physical and emotional behavior toward them at The Chapel or Circle C Ranch was inappropriate.

Published Updated

More than 16 women across the U.S. allege Wayne Aarum's physical and emotional behavior toward them at The Chapel or Circle C Ranch was inappropriate.

Published Updated

Above: Carolyn McDonald, Michelle Poulsen, Rachel Horvath, Jessica Spiesz, Ashley Scibilia, Joy McCullough

Wayne Aarum was the first man Joy McCullough ever held hands with. 

It was 1997, and Aarum was her youth pastor. She was 15, and he told her she was amazing. 

 Nineteen years later, in 2016, at a Christian children's camp in Western New York, 16-year-old Laura Snell straddled a bench facing Aarum, who was now the camp's president. They were seated off to the side in the dining hall, while a few other people milled around. He suggested they pray. 

He ran his hands over her shorts and up her thigh, toward her crotch, and slid his fingers against her outer labia. Snell felt confused, she recalls; no one had ever touched her like that. 

“I honestly didn’t even know what was happening to me,” said Snell, now 21. “He was definitely grooming me … I didn’t realize how absolutely brainwashing it was.” 

Laura Snell, 21, told the USA Today Network that Wayne Aarum inappropriately touched her, including running his hand over her clothed outer labia and thighs while sitting in a dining hall, while Snell was on staff at Circle C Ranch in the mid-2010s.
Laura Snell, 21, told the USA Today Network that Wayne Aarum inappropriately touched her, including running his hand over her clothed outer labia and thighs while sitting in a dining hall, while Snell was on staff at Circle C Ranch in the mid-2010s.
SEAN DOUGHERTY, USA TODAY

A USA TODAY NETWORK investigation found that Aarum, 55, touched at least 16 teenage girls inappropriately, some on multiple occasions, according to their firsthand accounts. 

His roles as youth pastor at Buffalo-area church The Chapel in the 1990s and then as president at Circle C Ranch in rural Cattaraugus County placed him in close proximity to dozens of girls — particularly youth group members from area churches, and camp staff members. 

That access, and Aarum’s presence as an authority figure in a Christian setting, helped foster the girls' spiritual and emotional dependence on him, clearing the way for further manipulation and inappropriate behavior, said Cheryl Chambers, a licensed mental health counselor with Christian Counseling Ministries of Western New York.  

The Chapel, Circle C Ranch The Chapel, Circle C Ranch The Chapel, Circle C Ranch GEORGIE SILVAROLE, Tina Yee, NEW YORK STATE TEAM

Fourteen women across the U.S. shared their stories on the record for this report; two others declined to share their names publicly but said they experienced similar conduct. Nineteen others —  14 of them speaking on the record, including former camp staff members, their family members and pastors in the region — said they personally witnessed Aarum’s actions, or heard about them from staff or loved ones. 

Leadership at both The Chapel and Circle C Ranch, and also Aarum himself, have been confronted with concerns about his conduct at least 20 times since 1997, according to excerpts from Aarum’s employee personnel file at The Chapel, and interviews with youth group members at The Chapel, Circle C staff and pastors in the Western New York area. 

Several of these individuals specifically said Aarum did not follow a widely known Circle C Ranch policy about avoiding bodily contact between members of the opposite sex. This policy was included in a 2003 document from a camp event titled “The Circle C Ten Commandments,” and was mentioned by multiple camp staff members interviewed for this story. 

In multiple letters and meetings over the past year, The Chapel pastors have implored the board of Circle C Ranch to hear and consider the women’s allegations. 

Kimberlee Norris, MinistrySafe attorney and founder
Patterns of predatory behavior emerged and grew more egregious as time passed.

“We believe they are telling the truth,” The Chapel's lead pastor, Jerry Gillis, said in an interview with USA TODAY NETWORK reporters. 

In 2020, The Chapel hired MinistrySafe, a consulting company supported by law firm Love & Norris that provides third-party investigations of abuse allegations in Christian ministries, to conduct an independent investigation into the claims. 

The MinistrySafe report given to local Child Protective Services in 2021 outlined that the company had found evidence of an ongoing pattern of manipulation and intimacy between Aarum and teenage girls. 

“I found each of the women to be credible,” said attorney and founder of MinistrySafe Kimberlee Norris, who has practiced law addressing child sexual abuse for over 30 years. “Patterns of predatory behavior emerged and grew more egregious as time passed.” 

Several authorities, including local police and the Cattaraugus County Department of Health, have received reports about Aarum. Two law enforcement agencies conducted investigations in the allegations earlier this year. 

Despite these efforts to raise the alarm about Aarum’s behavior, he remains in his position as president at Circle C Ranch as of spring 2021, a role in which he has spent considerable time with adolescent staff members. 

He has consistently denied all claims against him of inappropriate conduct. In an email to a USA TODAY NETWORK reporter on April 28, 2021, Aarum said: 

“I have never had any sexual interaction with anyone other than my wife. I have never touched anyone with any inappropriate motive.” 

He said in a May 7 email that he followed Ranch policies, except in emergency cases in which men and women may have to have physical contact. 

Aarum declined to do a phone, Zoom or in-person interview. 

Circle C Ranch published multiple statements on its website in recent months, doubling down on the argument that Aarum has never acted inappropriately with teenage girls in any pastoral role. 

'I was so young': Former Circle C Ranch staffer discusses effects of abuse
Carolyn McDonald, a former Circle C Ranch staffer, and Jerry Gillis, lead pastor at The Chapel, discuss the allegations against Wayne Aarum.
Georgie Silvarole, New York State Team
The Wayne effect

The Wayne effect

Carolyn McDonald recalls the late winter night in 2007 when, she says, Aarum pinned her 17-year-old body to a church pew inside the Circle C Ranch camp’s onsite chapel.  

Aarum’s breath was hot, his mouth inches from hers. McDonald, a teenage camp staff member who was at the Ranch working a winter church retreat, sobbed through a confession Aarum had spent hours prying out of her — a story of watching porn when she was 13. 

He demanded details and full eye contact. When she finished telling him about it, Aarum praised her; he said God still loved her. 

“I walked away from it feeling amazing — feeling like he’d done something monumental,” said McDonald, who is now 31. 

Carolyn McDonald, 31, of Rochester, shown in early April i Buffalo, alleges that Wayne Aarum physically and emotionally abused her while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch from 2006 to 2008. His actions, she says, included touching her crotch over her clothes and barging into her bedroom while she was in her underwear.
Carolyn McDonald, 31, of Rochester, shown in early April i Buffalo, alleges that Wayne Aarum physically and emotionally abused her while she was on staff... Carolyn McDonald, 31, of Rochester, shown in early April i Buffalo, alleges that Wayne Aarum physically and emotionally abused her while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch from 2006 to 2008. His actions, she says, included touching her crotch over her clothes and barging into her bedroom while she was in her underwear.
Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team
Carolyn McDonald at the Ranch in 2008.
HANDOUT PHOTO
Carolyn McDonald alleges Wayne Aarum physically and emotionally abused her, including touching her crotch over her clothes and barging into her bedroom while she was in her underwear, while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch from 2006 to 2008.

For decades, youths across the region were enamored with Wayne Aarum, who operated in some of the highest-profile spaces in Western New York’s Christian ecosystem.  

Circle C Ranch, founded by Aarum’s father, Wes Aarum Sr., in 1968 and still operated by the Aarum family, welcomes thousands of children every summer and hosts church youth retreats in the winter months. Many camp staffers credit Circle C Ranch as being integral to their personal spiritual growth and the formation of lasting connections within the area Christian community.  

The Chapel, where Aarum’s brother Wes Aarum Jr. was a pastor until he resigned in early 2021, is attended by about 5,000 people. 

Former camp staffers and youth group members say Wayne Aarum had a reputation for being both the cool guy and the sensitive, serious type; some had a deep aversion to him. 

He was friendly and charismatic in public, and his 6-foot-3-inch frame commanded a room when he delivered sermons about sin and salvation. His face, with bright eyes, a salt-and-pepper goatee and weathered smile lines, could easily blend in with those of other likable dads. 

In skits at church and later at Circle C, he played Jesus. 

Women who allege inappropriate interactions with Wayne Aarum as teenagers, many of whom did not know each other then, gave nearly identical accounts of his common phrases and actions toward them.  

He would frequently sit alone with girls, his hand on their thighs, former camp staffers said. 

Several women, including McDonald and Ashley Scibilia, 37, of Grand Island, separately remember him touching their crotches or inner thighs over their clothes while sitting in semi-public areas. 

Ashley Scibilia, 37, alleges Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward her, including coming into her cabin while she was naked and touching her clothed inner thigh, was inappropriate and abusive while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch in the early 2000s.
Ashley Scibilia, 37, alleges Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward her, including coming into her cabin while she was naked and touching her clothed inner thigh, was inappropriate and abusive while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch in the early 2000s.
Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team

He would hug them from behind or from the side with his fingertips resting on the side of their breasts, female camp staffers said — multiple photos of Aarum with girls on social media show him touching them in this way. 

He would kiss their foreheads, or put his forehead to theirs in a close embrace — a particular physical encounter that staff members at the Ranch would refer to as “getting Wayne’d.”  

Aarum said in a May 7, 2021, email that he had never touched anyone “in a way that was unsuitable or incorrect in the work, situation, location, setting, or circumstances.”  

He acknowledged in an April 28, 2021, email that he had “hugged (youth group members) in greeting or congratulating them,” and “patted people on the back in acknowledgment of their accomplishments.” Both actions were in socially appropriate contexts in the 1990s, he said. 

“I have never intentionally said or done anything to hurt anyone,” Aarum said. 

He also formed deep emotional bonds with these girls, acting as a father figure and maintaining a constant stream of intimacy and adoration, according to the women alleging abuse. He’d ask how their relationships with family or boyfriends were going, and what he could do to help.  

“It’s so much more damaging than you could realize, especially at such a young age,” said Michelle Poulsen, 38, who alleges Aarum initiated physically and emotionally intimate moments with her when she was a teenage youth group member at The Chapel. 

“It was almost like I needed that from him,” said Poulsen, who now lives in Amherst. “He validated my life.”    

Michelle Poulsen, 38, of Buffalo and Joy McCullough, 38, of Belleville, Illinois, allege that Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them was inappropriate and abusive while they were youth group members at The Chapel in the late 1990s. They were photographed in Buffalo on April 3.
Michelle Poulsen, 38, of Buffalo and Joy McCullough, 38, of Belleville, Illinois, allege that Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them was inappropriate and... Michelle Poulsen, 38, of Buffalo and Joy McCullough, 38, of Belleville, Illinois, allege that Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them was inappropriate and abusive while they were youth group members at The Chapel in the late 1990s. They were photographed in Buffalo on April 3.
Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team
Michelle Poulsen and Joy McCullough as youth group members at The Chapel in the late 1990s.
HANDOUT PHOTO
Michelle Poulsen and Joy McCullough allege Wayne Aarum’s physical and verbal behavior toward them was inappropriate and abusive while they were youth group members at The Chapel in the late 1990s.

In a April 28 email to the USA TODAY NETWORK, Wayne Aarum acknowledged that his conversations with youth group members at The Chapel, meant to help them navigate their adolescent struggles, could have “sometimes hurt (them) because of the listener’s personal situation,” he said. " I have always tried to do my best to help.” 

Many of those women would later spend years in therapy to erase traces of emotional entanglement with him.  

“He finds girls that he likes, and he gets them into a vulnerable position where they tell him everything,” McDonald said. “He grooms them to the point where they have no boundaries anymore. Everything is just a gray area.”  

Linda A. Smith, 63, of Holland, Erie County, who worked as Circle C’s business manager between 2005 and 2006, said she felt honored to be working at the Ranch when she was first hired.  

“When I first came on, I was in awe of the Aarums,” said Smith, referring to Wes Aarum Sr. and his wife, Margaret. “I sensed that I was a part of something very good. That this was what I had hoped for and thought that it was.” 

Within a year, however, she said she would go to the police to report her unease about the habits she’d seen develop between Wayne Aarum and teenage girls at the camp. She’d resign from her position not long after, her emotions a mix of heartbreak and frustration as she left the Ranch. 

“It dawns on you pretty quickly that this is not appropriate,” Smith said.

She added that the difference between the strict rules for teenage camp staff members and the operational freedom that Aarum seemed to have as a senior leader was stark; “You start to see the dichotomy of how the kids are treated and how Wayne was untouchable as far as what he was allowed to do,” she said. 

The effects of Aarum’s actions have grown, spawning a black hole that consumed the women’s lives, they said, and ripped apart personal relationships and church alliances in the close-knit Christian community in Western New York. 

Many people are devoted to the Ranch and the Aarum family, and said they never experienced or witnessed egregious physical behavior from Aarum.

“It would not square with what I know his character is. I can’t make sense of it,” said Rich Ferchen, 52, who worked with Aarum at both The Chapel and the Ranch for decades. 

But during his tenure at Circle C, Ferchen admitted that he saw Aarum closely embrace girls, and that, on multiple occasions, he happened upon Aarum and a girl speaking together in secluded rooms or spaces. 

Ferchen was sufficiently concerned, he said, that he confronted Aarum at the time about ending up alone in a space with someone of the opposite sex, which was prohibited under another one of the Ranch’s policies. 

In a May 7, 2021, email, Aarum said there were occasions, such as when problems arose at the Ranch, when he would have to “enter a space where a female counselor is present.” 

When asked if he had even been confronted about his interactions with teen girls at camp by board members, Ranch employees or volunteers, Aarum said no family member or Ranch board member had even complained to him regarding his conduct.  

Others have expressed suspicion, nonchalance or patent disbelief regarding women’s stories on social media, or in person at church meetings. 

The USA TODAY NETWORK asked for comment from five individuals who support the Ranch and the Aarums. None agreed to interviews on the record  for this story, and they did not provide additional sources who would be willing to comment on the record. 

It can be difficult for people to see a well-known leader or authority figure as a potential perpetrator of abuse, said Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and advocate for victims of sexual abuse who was the first victim to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, a former doctor for USA Gymnastics, of sexual abuse in 2016.  

“We’ve been conditioned to think that abuse is the man in the trench coat in the bush,” but often it’s someone who would never be considered capable of that behavior, Denhollander said. Abusers may rely on that societal perception to create an environment in which their abuse can continue in plain sight, she said. 

These environments are often helped by a network of oblivious, passive or complicit supporters or followers who don’t report the perpetrator’s actions, said Minette Drumwright, a professor and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied workplace harassment.  

“You’ve got people who are actively making excuses or running interference, but you also have a lot of people who are passive and say, “I didn’t do anything,’ or ‘That’s not my job,’” Drumwright said. “But by not speaking up or following up on complaints, they are in fact providing passive support.” 

Devan O'Dierno, of Mooresville, North Carolina, told the USA Today Network that Wayne Aarum was physically inappropriate with her, including placing his hands on her bottom while hugging her tightly in an empty room, while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch in the 2000s. She is one of more than 16 women across the country who have alleged Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. O'Dierno posed for a portrait at Cornelius Park on April 7, 2021.
Devan O'Dierno, of Mooresville, North Carolina, told the USA Today Network that Wayne Aarum was physically inappropriate with her, including placing his hands on her... Devan O'Dierno, of Mooresville, North Carolina, told the USA Today Network that Wayne Aarum was physically inappropriate with her, including placing his hands on her bottom while hugging her tightly in an empty room, while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch in the 2000s. She is one of more than 16 women across the country who have alleged Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. O'Dierno posed for a portrait at Cornelius Park on April 7, 2021.
JOSH MORGAN/USA TODAY NETWORK
Devan O’Dierno at the Ranch in 2008.
HANDOUT PHOTO
Devan O’Dierno told the USA Today Network that Wayne Aarum was physically inappropriate with her, including placing his hands on her bottom while hugging her tightly in an empty room, while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch in the 2000s.
Investigating the claims

Investigating the claims

Since late 2019, allegations about Wayne Aarum’s misconduct have gained momentum.

Carolyn McDonald was one of the first women to make the Circle C board aware of her abuse allegations, in the form of an email on Oct. 6. 2019.

That email launched a series of events, including at least two separate investigations into Aarum’s conduct, and the involvement of law enforcement and state camp licensure officials. 

Wayne Aarum temporarily stepped back from his role  as the Ranch’s president in January 2020, according to a Circle C statement on Jan. 18. 

The organization’s legal counsel at the time, Julia Hilliker, a partner at major Western New York law firm Hodgson Russ LLP, investigated the initial abuse claims. 

According to Randy Fancher, a board member at the time, Hilliker's recommendations, relayed via a meeting with board members and later in a thread of emails to board members, were that Aarum resign permanently and be replaced, and that the board be restructured to add more non-family members. 

But the Ranch’s board rejected Hilliker's findings, Fancher said. He resigned from the board soon afterward, he said. 

When reached by phone, Hilliker said she could not comment on what her recommendations were or whether they were accepted or rejected by the board. She is no longer representing Circle C Ranch.  

The USA TODAY NETWORK reached out to Wayne Aarum, his son Josh Aarum, and board members Daryl Dekalb and Wes Aarum Jr. for comment specific to this matter. All four did not respond. 

Reporters also tried to contact Ronald Snell, a longtime friend of Wes Aarum Sr. and Circle C board member for a short period, who was also present at the meeting.  Snell could not be reached after repeated attempts, including a letter to his home, phone calls and an email to his wife. 

Circle C Ranch would ultimately determine the initial allegations were false through its own internal investigation. Aarum and the Circle C board members did not respond when asked how this investigation was conducted and who conducted it. 

At that point, Carolyn McDonald briefly considered a lawsuit, but dropped it after her lawyers said it would be difficult to bring her most egregious allegations of abuse to court, because she couldn’t remember whether she was 17 or 18 when they occurred. 

The USA TODAY NETWORK’s requests for comment from McDonald's lawyers were not returned. Other women alleging abuse at Aarum’s hands said they're not considering filing civil lawsuits at this time. 

Pastors at The Chapel spent most of last year arranging or supporting meetings between Chapel staff, Aarum or Circle C board members, and the growing number of women alleging Aarum’s abuse. 

Rachel Horvath, 26, of Buffalo, photographed in Buffalo on April 3, 2021, was a camp counselor at Circle C Ranch in 2011. Horvath alleges Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward her then was inappropriate and abusive.
Rachel Horvath, 26, of Buffalo, photographed in Buffalo on April 3, 2021, was a camp counselor at Circle C Ranch in 2011. Horvath alleges Wayne... Rachel Horvath, 26, of Buffalo, photographed in Buffalo on April 3, 2021, was a camp counselor at Circle C Ranch in 2011. Horvath alleges Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward her then was inappropriate and abusive.
Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team
Rachel Horvath at the Ranch in 2011.
HANDOUT PHOTO
Rachel Horvath alleges Wayne Aarum’s physical and verbal behavior toward her was inappropriate and abusive while she was on staff at Circle C Ranch in 2011.

In a fall 2020 letter, Wayne Aarum said he was reinstated as president  and that Circle C’s independent investigation was complete, and had found no factual basis for the allegations against him at that point. 

Around the same time, The Chapel hired MinistrySafe to formally investigate claims of Aarum’s abuse. 

MinistrySafe’s investigation, separate from Circle C’s independent investigation, first focused on allegations of abuse at The Chapel youth group in the 1990s. It quickly evolved to include allegations of Aarum’s abuse at Circle C Ranch, all of which were ultimately included in the investigation’s findings. 

MinistrySafe lawyer Kimberlee Norris spent months interviewing dozens of victims, witnesses and corroborating sources. Of those, 21 women alleging abuse and 27 individuals offering additional corroborating information agreed to have their accounts reflected in the final report. 

The investigation’s findings were serious enough that Norris recommended Chapel staff to share them with law enforcement, state and local Office of Children and Family Services agencies and state and local Department of Health agencies before her report was complete, she said. 

Norris also contacted local law enforcement and local agencies herself about the findings, according to police reports. 

In early 2021, The Chapel held a members-only meeting to share some of the findings and to announce the church was suspending all activities and financial ties to Circle C Ranch. 

Circle C Ranch released its own investigation of the allegations at The Chapel on the Ranch’s website in March 2021.  It detailed the Ranch’s denial of the allegations and called the data found by the MinistrySafe investigation “essentially meaningless.” 

The Cattaraugus County Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation into this case in early 2021 after Norris contacted them regarding the allegations, according to police reports.

In the weeks following, over a dozen women gave statements to officers regarding their experiences with Aarum.

Police and the Cattaraugus County district attorney, Lori Pettit Rieman, ultimately determined that none of the allegations, some of which could have been considered criminal in nature at the time, were criminally actionable now, because the statute of limitations had expired, according to police reports. 

Cattaraugus County Sgt. Drew Silleman relayed this news via email on Feb. 9, 2021, to a group of women who gave statements to the agency. 

Silleman confirmed in May that the Sheriff’s Office investigation is closed. Pettit Rieman has not responded to the USA TODAY NETWORK’s multiple requests for comment.  

The USA TODAY Network attempted to obtain any relevant reports filed on Wayne Aarum from the Office of Children and Family Services under the Freedom of Information Law. The request was denied because both state and county child abuse reports are confidential. 

‘Wayne’s girls’

‘Wayne’s girls’

They called them “Wayne’s girls.” 

It was normal to pick them in the first few days of camp — they were pretty and thin teenagers, mainly staff but sometimes campers, said Nicole Richard, 30, of Norfolk, Virginia, who worked at the Ranch in the mid-2000s and said Aarum touched her inappropriately and made comments about her appearance.  

These girls often had a mix of issues going on in their home lives and a desire to talk at length about their adolescent problems, according to McDonald and other former Ranch staff members.

Joe Ferrante remembers coming upon a group of female counselors on one of his first days on staff at the Ranch when he was 15. They were betting on which new campers Wayne Aarum might pay special attention to, he said.   

Ferrante, now 36 and living in Rush, Monroe County, eventually became a full-time program director at the Ranch, and said he repeatedly witnessed physically intimate moments between Aarum and teenage girls, sometimes in deserted or secluded areas. He left his position at the Ranch in 2011.  

Ferrante would sometimes linger in those secluded locations, awkwardly making conversation, to ensure someone else was present.   

“I would play this weird game of being bold and defending these girls, but doing it in a way that doesn’t get you removed,” he said. “If I got fired, who was going to stand in the gap?” 

More than 16 women across the country have alleged Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. Six of them were photographed together in Buffalo on April 3, 2021. From left are Ashley Scibilia, Rachel Horvath, Jessica Spiesz, Carolyn McDonald, Joy McCullough and Michelle Poulsen.
More than 16 women across the country have alleged Wayne Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. Six of them were photographed together in Buffalo on April 3, 2021. From left are Ashley Scibilia, Rachel Horvath, Jessica Spiesz, Carolyn McDonald, Joy McCullough and Michelle Poulsen.
Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team

Those who didn’t fit the type — boys and plain-looking or heavier-set girls — were often ignored or brushed off, said Ferrante and McDonald, whom Ferrante said he often saw in one-on-one conversations with Aarum. 

In 2009, Ferrante, now a program director at camp during the summers, spoke to Wayne Aarum's father, Wes Aarum Sr., about his concerns.

“He told me, ‘My son has a problem, he’s an idiot, and he’s going to ruin this camp if he doesn’t stop,’” Ferrante said. “He said, ‘I need you to make sure Wayne isn’t touching girls or is alone with them.’ In a sick way, I already felt like that was my responsibility.”  

Ferrante said he would speak to Wes Aarum Sr. about Wayne Aarum’s habits eight or nine more times before leaving his position at Circle C. Wes Aarum Sr. died in March  2020.   

As women’s stories have piled up over the last year, the devastating effects of Aarum’s treatment of girls are crystal clear to Ferrante.  

“Everything I’ve read so far, every story on Facebook … I don’t doubt it,” he said. “I’ve seen those same patterns. It went unchecked. Even if the girls get closure, there’s a good chance that he’s going to continue on spiritually manipulating people if none of the truth gets out there.” 

Claims reported over decades

Claims reported over decades

In an interview with Buffalo’s WKBW-TV in March, Wayne Aarum told reporters he'd like to know the identities of the women who are accusing him of impropriety.  

But several of them made themselves known to Aarum or his board over the years in hopes that confronting the issue head-on would cause Aarum’s behavior to change.  

Jennifer Adema, now 42 and living in Salt Lake City, Utah, alleges she was inappropriately touched by Aarum on missions trips and at The Chapel in the 1990s.   

She reported him at the time to pastors at The Chapel, who eventually met with him at least four separate times between 1997 and 1998 regarding his physical habits with teenage girls, according to excerpts from Aarum’s personnel file at The Chapel, provided by email to the USA TODAY NETWORK by Chapel leadership.

Jennifer Adema of Salt Lake City alleges that Wayne Aarum touched her inappropriately, including pressing his groin into her back, while he was a youth pastor and she was a youth group member at The Chapel in the 1990s. Adema is one of more than 16 women across the country who have alleged Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. She posed for a photo on April 5, 2021.
Jennifer Adema of Salt Lake City alleges that Wayne Aarum touched her inappropriately, including pressing his groin into her back, while he was a youth... Jennifer Adema of Salt Lake City alleges that Wayne Aarum touched her inappropriately, including pressing his groin into her back, while he was a youth pastor and she was a youth group member at The Chapel in the 1990s. Adema is one of more than 16 women across the country who have alleged Aarum's physical and verbal behavior toward them at either The Chapel or Circle C Ranch from the late 1990s onward was inappropriate and abusive. She posed for a photo on April 5, 2021.
Jeffrey Swinger for the USA TODAY NETWORK
Jennifer Adema posed for a photo on April 5, 2021.
HANDOUT PHOTO
Jennifer Adema alleges that Wayne Aarum touched her inappropriately, including pressing his groin into her back, while he was a youth pastor and she was a youth group member at The Chapel in the 1990s.

Then, in 2012, Elle Campbell, a staff member and youth leader at The Chapel, went to current Lead Pastor Jerry Gillis about a concerning incident between a youth group member and Aarum at Snow Camp.  

Gillis said he brought the concern to his Chapel colleague Wes Aarum Jr., Wayne Aarum’s brother, who said he’d handle it from there, Gillis said. Gillis didn’t think to look at Wayne Aarum’s personnel file at the time, he said. 

“I wish I’d done more,” Gillis said. “I was uncomfortable in retrospect looking back on this and wishing I would have done more. Hindsight is a ridiculously good teacher.” 

Aarum maintains that there were no complaints about his interactions with youth group students during his tenure at The Chapel or in the decade afterward, he said in an April 28 email. 

In response, The Chapel’s executive pastor, John Camardo, said in a May 1 statement to reporters: “The Chapel has reviewed the personnel file and believes that the assertations made by Mr. Aarum are not consistent with the contents of the file.”    

Last year, Carolyn McDonald faced members of the Circle C Ranch board and shared her story directly for the first time. Wayne Aarum was not present for the meeting.

She explained how it took months of therapy to realize that her interactions with Aarum didn’t happen because he loved her like a father. 

“It wasn’t until this year that I saw (these moments) for the evil that they really are,” McDonald said in a recording of the meeting. “All of these memories were in the cloud of deception that Wayne had manufactured through a careful grooming process.”  

The meeting with the Circle C board, brokered by The Chapel, demonstrated the board’s reticence to acknowledge a pattern of troubling behavior from Aarum.  

During the meeting, Wes Aarum Jr., a Circle C board member and Wayne Aarum’s brother, called the allegations “horrific.” Fellow board member Daryl Dekalb expressed reservations about the process and said they couldn’t truly respond without Wayne Aarum being present.  

Dekalb declined to comment generally for this story. Wes Aarum Jr. did not return requests for comment. 

Jon Schuerholz, executive pastor at Cornerstone Church in Grand Island — Carolyn McDonald's childhood church — was present, and pushed the board members to take action.  

“We send our kids to camp and something happens, and we know about something, that’s where it gets scary. We’re talking about the kingdom of God. Aren’t you afraid? I’m terrified of God,” Schuerholz said in the meeting recording. 

Jon Schuerholz, executive pastor at Cornerstone Church in Grand Island, Erie County.
Jon Schuerholz, executive pastor at Cornerstone Church in Grand Island, Erie County.
Georgie Silvarole/USA TODAY Network New York

The year since would be punctuated by texts to McDonald’s phone — other women telling her they’d been abused, too.  They formed friendships around their desperation to see their stories taken seriously by leaders at the Ranch.  

Meanwhile, Adema, who alleged abuse from Aarum in the 1990s at The Chapel, confronted Aarum himself over a video call in early 2020.  

“I told him that when #MeToo came out, he’s the one I thought of," Adema said. Aarum was neither defensive nor apologetic, she said.  

“He played dumb,” Adema said. “He said, ‘I loved you guys and viewed you as my own children. I never meant to make you feel uncomfortable.’” 

Her determination to bring to light what she calls her “Wayne story” propelled her through the events of the last year — confronting Aarum, speaking to investigators and police and comforting other women who’ve been through similar experiences. 

She’s angry, but not vindictive. In the end, she doesn’t control what happens to Aarum, she said.  

“Vengeance is the Lord’s,” Adema said. “But I want justice.” 

Are you a victim of sexual abuse or domestic violence? 

Are you a victim of sexual abuse or domestic violence? 

There are organizations and resources to help you. if you live in New York or across the U.S., the following centers and hotlines can connect you with counseling, information and support:

Bivona Child Advocacy Center  

585-935-7800 or info@bivonacac.org 

Bivona Child Advocacy Center in Rochester, New York works on child abuse response, healing and prevention with a model that leverages collaboration between law enforcement, medical personnel, and child protective services.  

Child Advocacy Center at BestSelf 

716-887-5437 or cacinfo@bestselfwny.org  

The CAC at BestSelf in Buffalo, New York brings together a multidisciplinary group of professionals to address child sexual abuse in a child-centered environment.  

New York State Domestic and Sexual Violence Hotline 

1-800-942-6906 

Survivors of sexual abuse and domestic violence in New York state can get connected with counseling, legal assistance and crisis help.  

Darkness to Light hotline  

1-866-FOR-LIGHT (866-367-5444) 

Sexual abuse prevention organization Darkness to Light operates a toll-free number for individuals, children or adults, in the U.S. who need local information and resources about sexual abuse.  

Individuals can also text ‘LIGHT’ to 741741 for crisis support with a trained counselor, 24/7 and free of charge.   

For more, visit the website at www.d2l.org. 

About the reporting team

About the reporting team

Georgie Silvarole is the backpack reporter for the USA TODAY Network in New York, covering everything from breaking news to feature pieces. You can reach her on Twitter @gsilvarole or by email at gsilvarole@gannett.com.

Sarah Taddeo is an Enterprise reporter for USA Today Network's in New York, covering consumer affairs and statewide news. Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo.

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Georgie Silvarole, backpack reporter with USA Today Network New York, left, and Sarah Taddeo, enterprise reporter with USA Today Network New York, right, in Rochester.
Georgie Silvarole, backpack reporter with USA Today Network New York, left, and Sarah Taddeo, enterprise reporter with USA Today Network New York, right, in Rochester.
Shawn Dowd/Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
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