A church in central Pennsylvania and its youth pastor have pleaded not guilty to charges connected to a mock kidnapping of a youth group to simulate a religious persecution scene.
The Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Lower Swatara Township and 28-year-old Andrew David Jordan of Elizabethtown waived an appearance Thursday at a formal arraignment in Dauphin County Court on charges of false imprisonment and simple assault, The Associated Press reported.
According to prosecutors, the church staged the event in March, when mock kidnappers from the congregation covered the teens' heads, put them in a van and interrogated them – without telling some of them it wasn't real. The "kidnappers" then took the teens to the parsonage on the church grounds, where they pretended to torture Jordan.
The "kidnapped" teens included visitors who were not from the church. One of them was a 14-year-old girl. Court documents say she received a cut to her lip and bruises to her legs and thought she was going to be raped during the exercise, which also involved display of a semi-automatic rifle.
The girl's mother filed a complaint with police, which led to the investigation.
When the church and Jordan were charged in July, Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said it was "a sad case for all those involved," adding that while their intentions were not necessarily harmful, "they in essence terrorized several children." Marsico underlined that children needed to be protected "no matter where the harm occurs."
Glad Tidings pastor John Lanza expressed regret in March for traumatizing some teens during the event, but also spoke of other church youth sending emails of support. He said the exercise was meant to prepare the youth for what they might encounter as missionaries in foreign countries.
"It was a youth event, to illustrate what others have encountered on a regular basis," Lanza was quoted as saying, adding that the church had held similar events at least twice before, without complaints.