Former Circle C Ranch employee sues camp and its president, alleging sexual grooming

Sarah Taddeo Georgie Silvarole
New York State Team

A former camper and staff member at Circle C Ranch, a Christian camp in Cattaraugus County, has filed a lawsuit against the camp and its president, Wayne Aarum, accusing Aarum of grooming and sexually victimizing her between the ages of 9 and 16.

Laura Snell, 22, of Alexandria, Virginia, previously spoke about her allegations against Aarum as part of a USA TODAY Network New York investigation in June, which detailed claims of sexual and emotional abuse against Aarum from 16 women over two decades.

In her lawsuit, filed last month in Cattaraugus County under the state Child Victims Act, Snell claims Aarum, 55, touched her inappropriately between 2008 and 2015, when she was a minor, including touching her genitals, breasts and buttocks; rubbing her inner and upper thighs and pressing his pelvis into her back.

The conduct was at times private and at other times out in the open when other camp staffers would be able to witness it, according to Snell’s lawsuit.

Laura Snell, 22, of Alexandria, Virginia, 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. Snell was photographed at Belle Haven Park in Alexandria, Virginia, on Friday, April 9, 2021.

Aarum has repeatedly denied any allegations of inappropriate conduct.

“I have never had any sexual interaction with anyone other than my wife. I have never touched anyone with any inappropriate motive," Aarum said in an email to USA TODAY Network reporters on April 28, 2021.

Aarum also said in a video posted to the Circle C Ranch website this summer that he never received complaints at the time the alleged abuse occurred about his behavior in either positions he's held at The Chapel or at Circle C Ranch. 

Attorney Steven Long of Williamsville law firm Long & Paulo-Lee, PLLC, who represents Aarum, did not immediately return requests for comment.

Wayne Aarum, 55, is the director of Circle C Ranch, a Christian children's camp in rural Cattaraugus County. He's been accused of sexually and emotionally abusing teenagers, and posted a video message (pictured here) on June 3, 2021, explaining his denial of the allegations and his reasons for filing a defamation lawsuit against The Chapel, a Getzville megachurch that has been investigating the allegations.

In her lawsuit, Snell accused Circle C Ranch and its parent organization, Living Waters Ministries, of “negligently” retaining Aarum on staff and thus allowing him “unfettered and unsupervised access to minors” on the campgrounds and during other activities, according to the court filing. 

Read the original investigation:These women say a Western NY pastor, Christian camp president abused them as teenagers

Aarum sues The Chapel:Pastor accused of abusing teens sues Buffalo megachurch The Chapel for $2.5M

Aarum, whose late father, Wes Aarum Sr., founded Circle C Ranch in 1968, previously worked as a youth pastor at Buffalo-area megachurch The Chapel in the 1990s. 

A number of women — former high school youth group members under Aarum’s leadership — brought allegations of sexual and emotional abuse against Aarum from that time period earlier this year. 

During his tenure at The Chapel, pastors spoke to Aarum multiple times about his conduct with girls in the youth group, according to excerpts from Aarum’s employee personnel file at The Chapel.

A sign directs traffic toward Circle C Ranch, located on Ashcraft Road in Cattaraugus County. Friday, April 16, 2021.

The USA TODAY Network New York found that concerns about Aarum's behavior with girls were reported to leadership at both The Chapel and Circle C Ranch, and also to Aarum himself, at least 20 times since 1997, according to excerpts from the employee personnel file and interviews with youth group members at The Chapel, Circle C staff and pastors in the Western New York area. 

Aarum left his role at The Chapel in 2000. In addition to his duties at Circle C Ranch, Aarum also currently serves as a pastor at First Baptist Church of Arcade in Wyoming County. 

Aarum filed a lawsuit against The Chapel on June 2, 2021, accusing the church’s executive pastor, John Camardo, of defamation, saying statements related to the allegations against him were used to damage his reputation and his ability to do business, according to Aarum’s filing.

Circle C Ranch is located at the end of Ashcraft Road in Delevan April 26, 2021.  The Christian youth camp is surrounded by farmland and forest.

Snell’s lawsuit alleges that Circle C Ranch failed to investigate claims against Aarum in a timely fashion and report findings about his conduct, and “failed to terminate him in light of his inappropriate and predatory actions and behaviors with minors,” according to the paperwork.

The Ranch “owed (Snell) a heightened, fiduciary duty of care because they held themselves out as being able to provide a safe and secure environment for children,” the lawsuit read. 

As a result of her abuse, Snell experienced mental and psychological effects, including fear and anxiety that have required professional treatment, the lawsuit alleges. She is seeking compensatory and punitive damages to be determined at trial, according to the court filing. 

Women speak out 

Carolyn McDonald, 31, of Rochester 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. McDonald was photographed in Buffalo on Saturday, April 3, 2021.

In late 2019, allegations of abuse against Aarum began picking up momentum when Carolyn McDonald, a former Circle C Ranch staffer who worked there in 2006, shared her story with leadership at The Chapel.

For months, The Chapel facilitated conversations between women like McDonald, who say they were abused by Aarum, and the Circle C Ranch board of directors. 

The Chapel also hired MinistrySafe, an independent legal firm that looks into abuse allegations in Christian settings, to investigate allegations that abuse occurred at The Chapel in the 1990s. 

More than 16 women across the country have alleged Wayne Aarum's physical and emotional 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 Saturday, April 3, 2021. From left are Carolyn McDonald, Michelle Poulsen, Rachel Horvath, Jessica Spiesz, Ashley Scibilia and Joy McCullough.

That investigation found more than 20 women who said Wayne Aarum touched them inappropriately or fostered inappropriate and abusive relationships with them, both at The Chapel in the 1990s and later at Circle C Ranch, according to a report prepared by MinistrySafe investigator Kimberlee Norris.

What's the latest on Circle C Ranch?

Less than a week after the USA TODAY Network New York published its investigation into the allegations against Aarum in June, Circle C Ranch announced it would pivot its typical summer camp schedule for 2021 to “family weekends,” which would include parents as well as children.

The camp cited state restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the change. 

Earlier this week, Circle C Ranch staff members said the camp is open to house Afghan refugees arriving on U.S. soil after fleeing the Taliban’s takeover in the country, according to the story from WIVB in Buffalo.

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.