SE Pa. church holds mock kidnapping on youth group
PITTSBURGH—A southeastern Pennsylvania church subjected members of a youth group to a mock kidnapping and interrogations without telling them it was staged, and the outraged mother of one 14-year-old girl has filed a complaint with police.
The pastor of the Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Middletown said the church is "so saddened" that the girl was traumatized at the Wednesday evening youth meeting.
But the pastor, John Lanza, said Friday there have been emails of support from other students at the church, about 10 miles southeast of Harrisburg, because the intent was to prepare them for what they might encounter as missionaries. He didn't disclose the names of those involved but said the mock kidnappers included an off-duty police officer and a retired Army captain.
"It was a youth event, to illustrate what others have encountered on a regular basis," he said, adding that the focus of the lesson was "the persecuted church" in other countries.
Lanza said there were about 17 students at the meeting and the mock kidnappers covered the students' heads, put them in a van and interrogated them. Neither the students nor their parents were told about the raid beforehand, he said, though it was discussed with the parents of one youth who might have health issues.
TV station WHTM interviewed the girl who complained.
"They pulled my chair out from underneath me, and then they told me to get on the ground," she told the station. "I had my hands behind my back. They said, `Just do as I say, and you won't be hurt.'"
The girl said the teens were taken to the pastor's house, where it appeared he was being assaulted. Eventually, she said, the adults in charge revealed it was a staged event.
"They heard me crying," the girl said. "Why not right then and there tell us it was a joke, when you see me crying?"
Lanza said the church has conducted similar events at least twice before, adding that "there was much thought given to the safety aspect."
"If anyone was ever uncomfortable, they would be removed" from the exercise, Lanza said, though part of the idea was to shock the students with the experience.
Lower Swatara Township police Chief Richard Wiley declined to comment until an investigation into the raid is complete. The names of the mother and daughter who complained haven't been made public.
There could be consequences if the teens didn't know what was going to happen and didn't agree to be a part of the event, Dauphin County First Deputy District Attorney Fran Chardo said.
"It's extremely disturbing," Chardo told WHTM.
Tom Copeland, who studies international affairs and terrorism at Geneva College, a Beaver Falls school that emphasizes a "Christian worldview," questioned the wisdom of submitting a youth group to a mock kidnapping.
"It just seems inappropriate for that age group. You would think there would be permission from the parents," Copeland said, adding that he's never heard of anything like that happening at a church.
He said that while there have been highly publicized episodes of violence directed against Christian missionaries in other countries, it seems those countries' local religious groups are more at risk.
One security expert said role-playing training is sometimes conducted "at the quasi-military level" for groups that are going to work in war zones.
Daniel Karson, chairman of business intelligence and investigations at Kroll, a worldwide risk consulting company with headquarters in New York, said the idea of conflict zone training "is to acclimate someone to a possible situation that might arise." The training might involve everything from what items they should take to the country to a review of who they're meeting and security conditions there, he said.
Lanza said members of the church have made numerous mission trips overseas and have learned to be cautious. He said they were planning a trip to Mexico but reviewed current news and advisories and decided it was unsafe.
Lanza said he "would love to" apologize to the girl and her mother but feels he can't until the police investigation is done. He said the church wants to keep doing the program but would make changes.
"I would find a way that we could continue to keep the shock value," he said, "but I would find a way to inform the parents (beforehand)."