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‘He was my identity’: How emotional, spiritual abuse creates lasting trauma

Women alleging Wayne Aarum's abuse say they've experienced decades of emotional and spiritual damage as a result.

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Women alleging Wayne Aarum's abuse say they've experienced decades of emotional and spiritual damage as a result.

Published Updated

PHOTO BY GEORGIE SILVAROLE/USA TODAY NETWORK NEW YORK

For decades, Michelle Poulsen struggled to feel emotionally safe around men. 

She had very few relationships in college, but kept them at an arm's length. Even after marrying a man she loved, she was terrified to break down the emotional walls she'd built to protect herself. 

Now, as a 38-year-old mom, Poulsen can trace her fear of romantic attachment to moments as a teenager where she says those feelings were awakened and warped by her youth pastor, Wayne Aarum, who was over twice her age. 

She can still feel his kisses on her forehead, his hand in hers, huddled together in deserted church activity rooms in the mid-1990s. He told her loved her; he was a married man. He would shower similar affection on other girls while Poulsen watched, burning with jealousy for his attention. 

"I had no idea, at such a young age, how it formatted me," Poulsen said. "He was my identity."

Adults who foster emotional and physical relationships with teenagers — and use the connection to abuse and manipulate — can poison the child's ability to value themselves and recognize true love in relationships, said Poulsen's therapist, Cheryl Chambers, a licensed mental health counselor with Christian Counseling Ministries of Western New York. 

Cheryl Chambers, licensed mental health counselor
The thing with emotional sexual abuse is it can have the same kind of damage to a girl’s psyche as if they had been raped.

"The thing with emotional sexual abuse is it can have the same kind of damage to a girl's psyche as if they had been raped," Chambers said. "It confuses them about the role of a man in their life … and it strips them of their dignity in terms of who they are as women."

Sixteen women, including Poulsen, accuse Aarum of fostering emotionally and physically intimate relationships with them when they were in their teens, and while he was in formal roles as a youth pastor at The Chapel, a Buffalo-area church, in the 1990s, and as current president of Circle C Ranch, a Christian children's camp in Cattaraugus County, as of spring 2021. 

They point to Aarum as being the source of years of inner anguish and emotional confusion, resulting in low self-esteem, eating disorders, distrust of romantic partners and an inability to connect spiritually with God.   

In an emailed statement to USA TODAY NETWORK reporters on April 28, Aarum denied any wrongdoing in his interactions with teenage girls over the past two decades, saying that he has "never intentionally said or done anything to hurt anyone." 

Aarum has so far not acknowledged that his behavior may have resulted in any lasting trauma for the women who have come forward.

‘He hooked onto a vulnerability’

‘He hooked onto a vulnerability’

At 16, Carolyn McDonald had never been away from home for a whole summer. So unexpectedly becoming a counselor at Circle C Ranch in 2006, a 315-acre camp in rural Western New York, felt daunting to her. 

Stressed about the responsibility, McDonald sat crying on the front porch of a building at the camp. Wayne Aarum spotted her and came over to console her. 

At the time, his long hug and words of affirmation seemed innocent, she said. Looking back now, she sees that moment as an insidious starting point. 

"I think that was the point where he hooked onto a vulnerability," McDonald said. 

A long hug and words of affirmation seemed innocent but were an insidious starting point, says Carolyn McDonald.
A long hug and words of affirmation seemed innocent but were an insidious starting point, says Carolyn McDonald.
Georgie Silvarole/New York State Team

Aarum’s communication with young women was often gentle and caring. But if he felt his authority was disrespected, his demeanor could turn on a dime into an explosive outburst laced with threats of spiritual punishment or job termination, said Rachel Horvath, 26, who worked at the Ranch in 2011 and 2012.

After she and a group of other young staff members missed a staff meeting in 2011, Aarum met them at the camp entrance. 

“He started screaming, saying, “’You're treating this place like crap. You’re going to hell. You’re going to get fired,’” said Horvath, who spent the evening in her room, shaken.

Aarum later apologized with long hugs for her and a fellow staff member, she said. 

The next year, he blew up at 18-year-old Jessica Spiesz after she and a friend pulled a prank on another girl while working at the Ranch during a church youth group retreat, said Spiesz, now 27. After several minutes of yelling, Aarum calmly embraced Spiesz, his hands on her bottom, his forehead to hers, she said. 

“He said, ‘I didn’t want to scare you. You’re the most beautiful girl that’s ever worked at this camp. I love you and I’m so happy to have you work here,’” Spiesz said. “I started sobbing. I was terrified.” 

Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and advocate for victims of sexual abuse, said she thinks Aarum carefully constructed an environment where his authority went unchecked and inappropriate conduct could occur virtually without question. 

Rachael Denhollander
Rachael Denhollander
Handout

"When we see things that don’t quite feel right, we second-guess our own judgment," Denhollander said. "We lack an understanding of how abuse occurs ... (and) a lot of what Wayne did was out in the open."

In 2016, Denhollander was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, a former doctor for USA Gymnastics, of sexual abuse. 

Powerful individuals break down potential risks to their behavior by maintaining a "network of complicity" among employees and bystanders, said Minette Drumwright, a professor and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. Drumwright published research in 2019 on how this phenomenon factors into workplace harassment. 

In almost every instance of harassment she studied, the perpetrator was surrounded by people — family, close friends, employees or supporters — who actively or passively condoned, normalized or covered up his or her actions, making it easier to maintain a open pattern of bad behavior without raising red flags, she said. 

"These perpetrators are very adept at building these networks inside and outside their organizations," Drumwright said. "They can activate them when they need to protect themselves." 

Lasting emotional damage

Lasting emotional damage

When hidden or diminished, traumatic experiences can eat away at victims over time — and effects may not manifest for years later in life, said Cheryl Chambers, the mental health counselor.

Carolyn McDonald sought therapy as an adult for bulimia that emerged in her late teens, which she says was a direct result of Aarum's treatment of her. Joy McCullough, 38, another woman who alleges that Aarum fostered an inappropriate relationship with her as a teenager, developed disordered eating patterns through late high school and college.  . 

Former Ranch staffer Devan O'Dierno, 31 of Mooresville, North Carolina, said Aarum's treatment affected her relationships and her ability to separate herself from the pressure to please others. 

Other women accusing Aarum of abuse say they've faced similar issues that they trace back to their experiences with him, including depression, anxiety and difficulty trusting people.

"I’ve gone so long pretending it hadn’t happened," said Amy Liszkiewicz, 30, one of the women accusing Aarum of inappropriately touching her during a church youth group retreat at Circle C Ranch in the early 2000s.

For years, she buried feelings that her interactions with Aarum were wrong. It didn't make sense, she said — his actions weren't overtly sexual, and he often discussed prayer and the Bible while forming a bond with her. 

And she had seen him do the same things with many other girls, she said. 

"Now I’m looking at it again through older, more mature, more wise eyes," Liszkiewicz said. "There's a lot of anger, and there's hurt too. All of that time and emotion spent trying to get his attention. How many others has he done this to?"

The process of coming forward

The process of coming forward

Since Carolyn McDonald came forward to The Chapel and Circle C Ranch with her allegations in late 2019, she became a lightning rod of sorts for more than a dozen other women who said they too experienced Wayne Aarum's emotional manipulation and physical advances.

She gets all the calls, all the texts, all the social media messages — all pleas from women who feel they need to share their stories.

And she is leading their charge to compel those in authority to hear their experiences and take action, despite public contempt and suspicion of their accounts from some Circle C Ranch staff and supporters. 

"My goal is just for everyone to know what he's capable of," McDonald said. "I want people to know and be warned so that they can make informed decisions whether or not they want to send their daughters to him."

Carolyn McDonald
I want people to know and be warned so that they can make informed decisions whether or not they want to send their daughters to him.

For many of the women accusing Aarum of inappropriate behavior, the shame of that time in their lives still weighs heavily. It's painful for some, having wanted the attention as a young woman or having allowed Aarum to touch them in ways they didn’t understand, and never telling anyone what happened to them.

They question whether they could have saved others if they’d only seen the behavior differently. 

"I'm angry that when I came forward, I was so short-sighted and only thinking about myself," said Jennifer Adema, 42, who said she experienced years of unwanted physical contact from Aarum in the 1990s. She reported the behavior in 1997 while working with him at The Chapel, and Aarum left her alone after that, she said. 

In February 2020, Adema confronted Aarum on a video call that was set up through The Chapel's leadership. In that call, Aarum denied knowing he acted inappropriately, and did not apologize for the behavior or make any admission of guilt, Adema said. 

The trauma brought on by Aarum's abuse has clouded every relationship in her life, she said. After originally asking to speak off the record, Adema changed her mind. 

She's tired of Aarum controlling the narrative, she said. She wants people to hear her story. 

"This is not Wayne's first rodeo. … Why do people have such a hard time believing it, when it's such an obvious pattern of devious behavior?" she said. "This has been going on for years. What are we doing?"

GSILVAROLE@Gannett.com

STADDEO@Gannett.com

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