Circle C Ranch: How women say Wayne Aarum used 'spiritual abuse' to keep them silent
Carolyn McDonald finished speaking, her eyes trained on two board members of Circle C Ranch, a Christian children’s camp in Western New York.
It was summer 2020, and she’d just recounted her allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of the Ranch’s president, Wayne Aarum. She silently implored the two men in front of her to believe her story.
The first thing they used to cast doubt on her account was Matthew 18, a Bible chapter in which Jesus discusses how to properly air grievances.
A USA TODAY NETWORK investigation published in June 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.
Read the original story:These women say a Western NY pastor, Christian camp president abused them as teenagers
Unseen emotional wounds:‘He was my identity’: How emotional, spiritual abuse creates lasting trauma
The heavy-handed, larger-than-life spiritual environments perpetuated by Wayne Aarum and Circle C Ranch played a role in keeping them from recognizing the abuse or coming forward about it as teens, nearly all of the women say.
They say these environments were built on hierarchical authority structures that heavily discouraged negative feedback about male leaders, and a skewed interpretation of biblical principles, including those on how to handle conflict.
High-profile examples show that religious organizations initially marked by enthusiasm and good intentions can been warped over time by ego-driven leaders who, with the trust of their devoted followers, may twist Scripture to their advantage.
“For a lot of people, they can’t figure out how to separate the abusive theology from helpful theology. … They believe God is abusive, because this man was abusive and he used Scripture to do it,” said Elle Campbell, 34, of Alpharetta, Georgia, who alleged Aarum touched her inappropriately when she worked at The Chapel in her 20s. She also brought concerns about Aarum’s contact with her youth group members to church leadership in 2012.
Aarum has denied all allegations of abuse against him.
“I have never had any sexual interaction with anyone other than my wife. I have never touched anyone with any inappropriate motive," Aarum wrote in an email to a USA Today Network reporter on April 28, 2021.
Attorney Steven Long, who is representing Aarum, sent a statement to the USA TODAY NETWORK following a request for Aarum's comment for this story.
"Wayne is and has always been a devoted counselor and Pastor," Long, of Long & Paulo-Lee PLLC, said in the statement. "Mr. Aarum truly believes in the scripture, Jesus, and all that he has relayed. He has devoted his life to caring for adolescents, many of whom were troubled. Briefly stated, though he will now once again no doubt be wrongfully ridiculed, that is indeed the way he lives his life."
Long declined to comment in response to questions regarding Aarum's and Circle C Ranch's use of Scripture to teach theology and defend themselves against abuse allegations.
"I do not believe it serves any purpose, however, to engage in a discussion about any Bible Scripture and any insinuations you wish to or have implied," Long said.
What is spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse can be described as “using that which is sacred — including God’s Word— to control, misuse, deceive, or damage a person created in (God’s) image,” reads a blog post by Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist who has spent most of her career exposing abuse in the church and counseling those who’ve been affected by it.
This can look like anything from bullying and put-downs among leaders at a Christian organization to pastors labeling whistleblowers as bitter gossips who can’t be trusted.
This treatment may be perpetrated by one individual, or permeate an entire organization, and it is sometimes — but not always — entangled with other kinds of abuse.
Ravi Zacharias, a globally renowned Christian speaker who died in 2020, was revealed after his death to be a prolific sexual predator who prayed with women after abusing them, according to an independent legal report published by his ministry organization.
Soon after, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries announced it would pivot to become a grant-making charity that would, in part, support organizations caring for victims of sexual abuse.
In 2015, Mars Hill Church, a 12,000-person multisite church in Seattle, closed virtually overnight after its charismatic pastor, Mark Driscoll, resigned following allegations of bullying, misogyny and misuse of church funds.
How did spiritual abuse play into allegations against Wayne Aarum and Circle C Ranch?
As adults, many of the women who accused Aarum of sexual abuse or inappropriate touching also believe they were part of a spiritually abusive environment that negatively affected their view of faith, God and the church.
At Circle C, theological principles were delivered to campers and staff by the men in charge — and when they spoke, you listened, camp staff members said.
“A lot of this came out with this camp … a strong authority structure where authority can’t or shouldn’t be questioned, and undue benefit of the doubt given to authority,” said Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and advocate who was the first victim to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, a former doctor for USA Gymnastics, of sexual abuse in 2016.
Women and girls are often the most policed group in these environments, specifically when it comes to physical modesty and mental purity, Denhollander said. As a result, if they’re abused sexually, many girls are confused and turn inward, blaming themselves for having “a dirty mind” if they suspect what was done to them was too intimate, she said.
Devan O’Dierno, a former teenage staff member at the camp in the mid-2000s, felt a similar confusion while Wayne Aarum sat with her on the Circle C Ranch grounds, speaking to her about spiritual matters while casually rubbing her thigh, she alleges.
“Anytime you were sitting with him, he would be rubbing your thigh,” said O’Dierno, now 31. “What he was talking to you about was so spiritual and godly … but this married man was rubbing your leg.”
Pastors or leaders may use biblical Scripture to justify their choices as "God’s best" or "God’s way," but often that information is taken out of context, said Dan Trippie, the lead pastor at Restoration Church in Buffalo, who spent hours counseling several women who say Wayne Aarum abused them.
Take Chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew — the passage of Scripture invoked by Circle C’s board members in the meeting with Carolyn McDonald, and cited by Circle C Ranch's website in response to the abuse allegations.
In the New Testament passage, Jesus reminds the Apostles of the traditional Jewish law that required people with individual grievances against another person to go to that person first, before others. If the accused refuses to listen, the hurt party is free to elevate the issue to a group or even to the church as a whole.
Board member Daryl Dekalb appeared to use these verses to paint as sinful the women who requested to meet with him without Aarum present, according to a recording of the summer 2020 meeting.
“We're almost going against biblical direction in the way we’re doing this,” Dekalb said after hearing Carolyn McDonald’s allegations against Aarum. “You don’t want to face him, and we’re here unable to really respond. I'm concerned about going around what God has made so clear in his Word.”
But that passage was meant for the church – not for issues that may be dealt with by civil authorities, such as allegations of sexual abuse, Trippie said.
“God has also put civil authorities in place … and with matters of civil justice, he’s given us the legal system to handle those,” he said. “Matters of the spiritual, he’s put into the hands of the church.”
Furthermore, modern psychology experts discourage forcing those alleging abuse to face the men or women they say hurt them because of the additional trauma inflicted and the potential for intimidation and silencing of victims coming forward.
Facebook video footage shows that in the days following the publication of USA Today’s investigation into the allegations against Wayne Aarum, Aarum mentioned the story of Joseph in his sermon at The First Baptist Church of Arcade in Arcade, Wyoming County, which he is pastor in addition to his role at Circle C.
As told in the book of Genesis, Joseph was a righteous man sold into Egyptian slavery by his jealous brothers, where he was sexually targeted by his master’s wife. When he resisted her advances, she lied about him, and he was subsequently thrown in jail.
That story could be twisted by spiritual leaders to focus on the woman making a false accusation against a righteous man, and aimed at discrediting women accusing a man of abuse, said Elle Campbell, the former staff member at The Chapel.
“This is precisely what Wayne and abusers do,” she said. “They abuse their authority and try to flip it to make themselves the victim.”
What are the effects of spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse scandals leave behind a trail of regular people facing the harsh reality that these highly revered people and organizations may not have been what they appeared to be.
This can cause deep emotional anguish and spiritual confusion, which could evolve into disordered eating, mental health issues and difficulty in future relationships.
When spiritual and sexual abuse go together, as is alleged in the case of Wayne Aarum, the effects on a victim’s psyche are even more devastating and can permanently sever their connections to God, said Cheryl Chambers, a licensed mental health counselor with Christian Counseling Ministries of Western New York.
“(Aarum) puts himself in a position where he’s representing God,” Chambers said. “And what happens is (alleged victims) get to see him as God, and because he’s so manipulative and overbearing, it distorts their relationship with God and how he views them as well.”
That was the case for Raquelle Raugh, 22, of Queens, New York, who worked at Circle C in the mid-2010s and alleges inappropriate touching and emotional intimacy from Aarum during that time.
“I don’t really consider myself a Christian at this point in my life,” Raugh said. “A huge part of that is due to Circle C … having the place that I came to know Jesus crumble, and all of the leaders I looked up to being not who I thought they were at the time.”
Sarah Taddeo is an enterprise reporter for USA Today Network's New York State Team. Got a story tip or comment? Contact Sarah at STADDEO@Gannett.com or (585) 258-2774. Follow her on Twitter @Sjtaddeo. This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Please consider becoming a digital subscriber.