Dauphin County prosecutors have filed charges of false imprisonment and assault against a church and its pastor for staging a mock "terrorism raid." But church authorities say the raid was conducted only as "learning experience" for church youths.
Pennlive.com reports that four men burst into a room full of teenagers participating in a youth-group meeting at the Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church, Lower Swatara. According to Lancaster Online, more than a dozen teens attended the youth group meeting at the church on March 21. The lights suddenly went out and masked men carrying flashlights entered the meeting room. They ordered the teens to the floor and covered their heads with pillow cases and bound their wrists with zip ties.
The youths were then forced at gun-point into a waiting van after pillowcases were pulled over their heads and their wrists bound.
The "kidnappers" drove the teenagers to the pastor's house where they were taken to an interrogation room in a dark musty basement, Pennlive.com reports. The basement had a single chair illuminated from the ceiling by a single bulb. Each teenager was interrogated for 30 seconds. The interrogators assumed a menacing tone to scare them.
According to The Washington Post, a presentment by Dauphin County investigating grand jury describes what happened that evening:
“The lights in the basement were turned off ... male members of the congregation with their faces obscured entered the room with flashlights. The men flipped over the chairs and ordered the children to get on the ground.
“The masked men bound the children loosely behind the back using zip ties and placed bags over their heads. They then moved the children to a van parked outside the church and loaded the children into the open cargo area ... and 1/8drove them to3/8 the basement of the parsonage ... where a guard was holding an unloaded and disabled semi-automatic rifle. ...
“The men simulated the interrogation and torture of pastor Jordan. ... There was simulated blood on pastor Jordan’s face.
"The children were then driven to a bonfire on the church grounds and told it was a simulation."
The Washington Post reports that some of the children who were members of the church guessed it was fake but some new members and some who were not members of the church did not know it was a simulation.
The district attorney's office has filed charges against the church and youth pastor Andrew D. Jordan. Police authorities say they are baffled by the action of the church leaders.
Lower Swatara Police Chief Richard Wiley, said he did not understand the rationale of the church leaders. He said he had never witnessed a similar case in his career. District Attorney Edward M. Marsico Jr., said that while the intentions of the church may not have been harmful "they in essence terrorized several children."
Church pastor John Lanza, however, said that the raid was used as a "learning experience" to demonstrate the religious persecution and unpleasant experiences missionaries deal with in foreign lands because of their faith. The Daily Mail reports he said: "It was a youth event, to illustrate what others have encountered on a regular basis." He explained that the focus of the lesson was "the persecuted church" in other countries. According to Lanza, there were about 17 students at the meeting. He said similar exercises have been conducted in the past. He claimed that "there was much thought given to the safety aspect... If anyone was ever uncomfortable, they would be removed from the exercise." He admitted, however, that the idea was to shock the participants.
According to the Daily Mail, the mother of one of the teenagers, a 14-year-old girl, filed complaint with the police after her daughter returned from the "terrorism experience" with a cut lip, brusies and psychological trauma. The New York Daily Record reports that the girl, identified as K.T., had been attending the church for only a month and unlike some of the children who had been attending the church for years, she did not suspect it was a fake raid.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that Pastor Jordan's attorney, William DeStefano, said there was no evidence anyone hurt the girl. DeStefano argued that the false imprisonment charge can be challenged because the girl never tried to flee her fake captors.
According to The Washington Post, legal experts acknowledged that charging the church was novel but authorities say they felt it was necessary to do something to protect the children. Ed Marsico said: “You can’t, in the name of religious liberty, engage in criminal activity, and that is what occurred here. Just because you’re a church doesn’t mean you can hurt a kid. It was not a well-thought-out exercise; the church is lucky the incident wasn’t worse.”
Marsico told AP: "This is a sad case for all those involved... We need to protect children, no matter where the harm occurs." Marsico said a grand jury recommended that charges be pressed. He noted that some of the teenagers in the group were not church members and that one of the men terrorized the children by brandishing a semi-automatic rifle.
The 14-year-old girl whose mother called the police described her experience: "They pulled my chair out from underneath me, and then they told me to get on the ground. I had my hands behind my back. They said, 'Just do as I say, and you won't be hurt.'"
The Daily Mail reports that a security expert said that role-playing training was sometimes used 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 conflict zone training is used to acclimate trainees to conditions they may have to deal with.
But Tom Copepland, studying international affairs and terrorism at a Geneva College that emphasizes the "Christian worldview," raised questions about the wisdom of the exercise, saying "It just seems inappropriate for that age group. You would think there would be permission from the parents."