USA TODAY US Edition
Leader at camp, church abused us, women say
‘I honestly didn’t even know what was happening to me’
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.”
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 Buffaloarea megachurch 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
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.
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, 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, staff at Circle C 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 Circle C Ranch board to hear and consider the allegations.
“We believe they are telling the truth,” The Chapel’s lead pastor, Jerry Gillis, said in an interview with USA TODAY Network reporters. In 2021, The Chapel suspended all activities and financial ties to Circle C Ranch.
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.
The MinistrySafe report given to agencies including Cattaraugus County 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 into 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, 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 that Aarum has never acted inappropriately in any pastoral role.
Circle C Ranch sued The Chapel and its executive pastor, John Camardo, for defamation on June 2, the same day the USA TODAY Network published this investigation online.
On June 7, Circle C Ranch announced it would host solely family-oriented events in July and August, where parents will attend with their children in lieu of its traditional summer camp model. Circle C Ranch said this change was due to COVID-19 restrictions.
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 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.
For decades, young people 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. His 6foot-3-inch frame commanded a room, and his face, with bright eyes, a saltand-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 unknown to each other throughout the years reported nearly identical allegations of inappropriate behavior from Aarum.
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, New York, separately remember him touching their crotches or inner thighs over their clothes while sitting in semipublic areas.
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 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 email that he had “hugged (youth group members) in greeting or congratulating them,” which were in socially appropriate contexts in the 1990s, he said.
“I have never intentionally said or done anything to hurt anyone,” he 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.
“It was almost like I needed that from him,” 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.
“He validated my life,” Poulsen said. 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, New York, 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.
Within a year, however, she said she would go to the police to report her unease about the habits she’d seen develop between Aarum and teenage girls at the camp. She would 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.
Many people are devoted to the ranch and the Aarum family, and said they never experienced or witnessed egregious physical behavior from Wayne 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, 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.”
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. She 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.
Investigating the claims
Since late 2019, allegations about Wayne Aarum’s misconduct have gained momentum.
McDonald was one of the first women to make the Circle C board aware of her abuse allegations, in the form of an email 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.
Aarum temporarily stepped back from his role as the ranch’s president in January 2020, according to a Circle C statement on Jan. 18 of that year.
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 current and former board members Wes Aarum Jr., Daryl Dekalb and Ron Snell for comment specific to this matter. All four did not respond after reporters tried multiple methods of contact.
Circle C Ranch would ultimately determine the initial allegations were false through its own internal investigation. Wayne Aarum and the Circle C board members did not respond when asked how this investigation was conducted and who conducted it.
In a fall 2020 letter, 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 and then on allegations of abuse at Circle C Ranch.
MinistrySafe lawyer Kimberlee Norris spent months interviewing dozens of individuals; 21 women alleging abuse and 27 others offering corroborating information were included in her final report.
Norris recommended Chapel staff share her findings with law enforcement and state agencies before her report was complete, she said.
Circle C Ranch released its own investigation of the allegations at The Chapel on the ranch’s website in March detailing the ranch’s denial of the accuations.
The Cattaraugus County Sheriff ’s Office opened an investigation into this case in early 2021, according to police reports. Over a dozen women gave statements to officers regarding their experiences with Aarum.
Police and the 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.
County Sgt. Drew Silleman confirmed in May that the Sheriff’s Office investigation had closed. Pettit Rieman has not responded to the USA TODAY Network’s multiple requests for comment.
The USA TODAY Network attempted to obtain reports filed on Aarum from the state 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.
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 some
times campers, said Nicole Richard, 30, of Norfolk, Virginia, who worked at the ranch in the mid-2000s.
On one of Joe Ferrante’s first days as a camp staffer at 15, he came upon female counselors betting on which new campers Aarum might pay special attention to, Ferrante said.
Ferrante, now 36 and living in Rush, New York, eventually became a fulltime 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?”
In 2009, Ferrante spoke to 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 his son’s habits eight or nine more times before leaving his position at Circle C. Wes Aarum Sr. died in March 2020.
“Everything I’ve read so far, every story on Facebook … I don’t doubt it,” said Ferrante. “I’ve seen those same patterns. It went unchecked.”
Claims reported over decades
Several women alleging abuse made themselves known to Aarum or his board over the years in hopes that confronting the issue head-on would change Aarum’s behavior.
Jennifer Adema, now 42 and living in Salt Lake City, alleges she was inappropriately touched by Aarum on mission 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.
In 2012, Elle Campbell, a youth leader at The Chapel at the time, went to current Lead Pastor Jerry Gillis about a concerning incident between a youth group member and Aarum at Snow Camp. Gillis brought the matter to his Chapel colleague Wes Aarum Jr., Wayne Aarum’s brother, who said he’d handle it from there, Gillis said.
Wayne 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.
Adema confronted Aarum directly over a video call in 2020. Aarum was neither defensive nor apologetic, she said.
Her determination to bring to light what she calls her “Wayne story” propelled her through speaking with Aarum and to investigators and police and comforting other women who’ve been through similar experiences.
In the end, she doesn’t control what happens to Aarum, she said.
“Vengeance is the Lord’s,” Adema said. “But I want justice.”