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‘Anyone who turns a blind eye is complicit’

Steele County Times - Staff Photo - Create Article
Tim and Cherrie Peterson are pastors of Christian Family Church in Owatonna and Edina. They live in Lakeville.
Former CFC member in Edina claims cover-up
Kay Fate, Staff Writer
“They are a self-serving family under the guise of Christian leadership who will stop at nothing to benefit their family—and their family alone—financially.”
-“Mary” Former Parishioner

The charges against a former minister at Christian Family Church in Owatonna came as no surprise to several people who once attended its sister church in Edina.

It’s another example, they said, of head pastors Tim and Cherrie Peterson covering up potentially illegal or dangerous activity.

The Petersons have not responded to repeated requests for comment.


Owatonna incidents

Cherrie Peterson reportedly told an Owatonna Police investigator she knew that Luverne Daniel Zacharias, now 46, had sent “some inappropriate texts” to a student at El Shaddai Christian School in 2009, when he was serving as its teacher and principal.

The school is affiliated with and overseen by CFC.

Peterson said Zacharias “got counseling” at the time, the police report says; other parents at the school and church were not made aware of the situation.

That student, now an adult, told authorities Zacharias sexually assaulted her daily from the time she was 14 until she graduated from El Shaddai, court documents say.

He continued to harass her, soliciting her for oral sex in his office at the church as recently as 2019, the criminal complaint says, and asking her for nude photos and videos in 2021.

The woman told the Petersons about both instances, the complaint continues, but again, they did not tell anyone who attended the church – and told the victim not to go to law enforcement.

The woman eventually went to Owatonna Police in March 2022 because she “does not think the church is going to do enough to keep kids safe,” the report says.

Zacharias did step down from his position in the church, but no date is provided in the criminal complaint. The current Christian Family Church website makes no mention of him.

He was charged last week with one count each of first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct, as well as two counts each of third- and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. All are felonies.


Edina incident

A woman who spoke with the Steele County Times on the condition of anonymity said she and several others left the Edina campus of the Christian Family Church for a similar reason. She is referred to as “Mary” for purposes of confidentiality, though the Times knows her complete name and background.

In 2019, someone uncovered the criminal past of a man who worked at the church. His name is Phillip Lee Holmer, but everyone at the church knew him as Lee Holmer.

A member of the church was familiar with the Holmer family and knew that about a decade earlier, Holmer had reportedly been accused of sexual misconduct with his foster daughters. The accusation was alarming, but not proof of anything, Mary said.

When it became clear that Holmer was involved in children’s activities – including helping at the church nursery during worship services – someone from the congregation did a background check.

What they found stunned Mary: Holmer had been charged with first-degree sexual abuse in July 2014 in Oregon.

He entered a guilty plea in October 2014 and spent some time behind bars; he was ordered to register as a sex offender.

According to Oregon statutes, offenders “must register as a sex offender for life, unless a court has granted you relief from registration.”

It’s unclear if that has happened for Holmer; he does not appear on the Minnesota Predatory Offender Registry.

When his criminal history became known at the Edina church, he had been off probation for three months, Mary said.

She provided the documents from the Oregon Judicial Department to the Times.


Pastors’ reaction

Mary said she warned several people about Holmer’s past, telling them to keep their children away from the church.

“At that point, I said, ‘I don’t think Tim and Cherrie know about this,’ because how could they, right?”

She reached out to the Petersons.

“I said we needed to talk about this, because it’s seriously disturbing, and in the meantime, they needed to pull him from all children’s ministry areas,” Mary said of Holmer.

She also requested that they alert the entire congregation, “so people know he’s working on staff, so they can keep their kids safe,” she said.

Instead of hearing from the Petersons, their son, Trey Peterson, responded to the accusations in a series of group text messages that were provided to the Steele County Times. Trey is also employed by the church.

His parents were busy “entertaining friends from Norway,” Trey said, adding that “you will all be surprised at how much of that information is inaccurate.”

Tim and Cherrie Peterson didn’t respond to Mary for more than a month, she said.

By then, she and many others – including the group in the text message – had left the church.

“Now that it’s happened again, my feeling that they were covering it up is true,” Mary said, referring to the Zacharias case. He has not been convicted, nor entered a plea.

“Anyone who willingly turns a blind eye to situations like this is also complicit,” she said.


Mandated reporters

Clergy are mandated reporters of maltreatment in Minnesota, though the parameters are fuzzy.

A member of the clergy is not required to report information that falls under the clergy-penitent privilege. That means clergy cannot disclose a confession made to them in a professional capacity.

The criminal complaint against Zacharias makes the claim that the Petersons knew of “inappropriate texts” in 2009, as well as the incident in the church office in 2019. Cherrie Peterson said Zacharias told them he had also hugged the girl from behind when she was 15 or 16.

Zacharias allegedly told the Petersons it was “a quick hug, but he shouldn’t have.”

In this case, however, it wasn’t Zacharias who “confessed” the initial claim of inappropriate behavior – it was reported to them by the alleged victim.

At the very least, church law experts say, a two-adult policy should be enacted around all minors after a claim is made. Church leaders should not “err on the side of mercy,” and limit second chances.

A second woman reported that Zacharias had approached her around 2011, when she was a student at El Shaddai – and two years after the first student had graduated.

She told authorities Zacharias would give her hand-written notes, asking for oral sex, for nude photos, and if she would ever be with a married man, court documents say.

She refused all alleged advances.


The fallout

Some members who left the Edina church were “big tithers,” Mary said.

Instead of acknowledging the Holmer situation publicly, Cherrie Peterson’s sister allegedly told other members that one couple left “because they couldn’t afford the $25,000 tithe to the sculpture garden in Owatonna, and were embarrassed,” Mary said.

Tim and Cherrie Peterson are creating a $4 million sculpture garden at Christian Family Church in Owatonna, which sits near Interstate 35. The latest piece, installed in November, is a 77-foot-tall cross that sits along the road.

The piece was created and welded by a Montana-based LLC that Mary claims is owned by Tim Peterson’s brother-in-law.

Though Trey Peterson said Holmer was removed from the ministry in Edina, Mary said others who still attended the church said he was an employee as recently as a year ago.

She heard about the charges against Zacharias from another former member; the women became emotional, “knowing there are victims.”

The foundation of Christian Family Church has never been about faith, Mary said.

“It’s always been a money grab. Everything’s always about money,” she said.

The Petersons “want the big lifestyle; they live in an 8,000-square-foot mansion; they used to have a second home on Lake Minnetonka. They have a condo in Mexico and at least one place in Florida,” Mary said.

Their primary residence, which is in a secluded area of Lakeville, is a 7,914 square foot house on a 3.4-acre lot. Real estate records estimate the value of the home from $1.7 million to just under $3.2 million. Property tax records show the Lakeville residence is owned by the church, which makes it exempt from property taxes.

The homes were all reportedly purchased under the church’s name; the Petersons refuse to release their financial records or disclose how much they or their children make from the different campuses.

Mary and her family no longer attend any church, thanks to what she believes is a betrayal of trust on many levels.

She said she believes money is behind everything the Petersons do – including not sharing potentially dangerous information with church members.

“They are a self-serving family under the guise of Christian leadership who will stop at nothing to benefit their family – and their family alone – financially.”

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