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Christian Family Church, sex, scandal, Owatonna, Tim Peterson, Cherrie Peterson
Ex-CFC worker claims church knew about sex misconduct for years
Rick Bussler & Kay Fate
“It traumatized our soul.”
-Naomi Jirele, Former CFC Worker

The lead pastors at Christian Family Church in Owatonna allegedly knew about sexual misconduct allegations involving one of their pastors 10 years before a police investigation into the matter began, according to a former church worker tied to the investigation.

During Naomi Jirele’s 17-year career as a church worship leader, she found herself on the receiving end of some troubling news involving a teenager in the church, who is referred in this story as victim two. Around 2010, Jirele became aware of sexual misconduct accusations aimed at Luverne Daniel Zacharias, who was a former teacher and principal at the school operated by the church and a youth pastor at the church.

She claims after she made Pastor Cherrie Peterson aware of the misconduct, very little was done: It was business as usual for another 12 years.

Jirele made it clear she only has knowledge of victim two and not the other victim in the case against Zacharias, who faces multiple counts of felony criminal sexual conduct. She believes that the sexual misconduct regarding victim two started around 2010 when she came to her with inappropriate text messages.

Jirele acknowledged because of the length of time that has elapsed since then, she cannot remember the exact contents of those texts. However, she recalls them as being inappropriate and needing the attention of her superior, Cherrie Peterson, who is one of the lead pastors at Christian Family Church.

“I took it to Cherrie right away,” Jirele said.

Jirele said a short time after she reported it, Cherrie Peterson organized a “reconciliation” meeting between four people: the victim’s father; Zacharias; Cherrie Peterson and Jirele. At no time was anything reported to police that Jirele was aware of.

The victim did not come forward to police until March 2022, nearly 12 years after the reconciliation meeting.

In Jirele’s mind, the reconciliation back in 2010 was “the end of the story.” She said it satisfied her at the time, as she felt Cherrie Peterson was handling the situation. In hindsight, Jirele admits she didn’t seek more understanding of what was going on and now struggles with the church’s response – or apparent lack thereof.

Jirele said she was never trained on how to handle such situations in ministry. “I was led to believe you pass everything on to them (the pastors) because this is way bigger than me,” she said.

“I wasn’t trying to hide anything,” Jirele said, noting if she’s guilty of anything, it’s being ignorant of what should have been done. “I’m willing to pay the piper if someone says I didn’t do something I should have.”

Jirele’s greatest frustration is now realizing Cherrie Peterson did not report the misconduct to police at the time or do very little to stop it.

“It was kept under wraps pretty well,” said Robert Jirele, Naomi’s husband, who also worked as a worship leader at the church.

“They tucked it under,” he said, adding the knowledge of the initial sex misconduct allegations was not widespread throughout the church.

Robert Jirele considers the case against Zacharias a “pretty serious” matter. While the church generally tried to take care of things in-house and not go outside for help, neither Robert nor Naomi feel Cherrie Peterson handled the case properly – and could have in fact ended the suspected misconduct years earlier.

The Jireles felt as though Cherrie and Timothy Peterson were not wanting to show the church in a negative light. “It always felt like a cover up,” Naomi Jirele said.


CFC’s response

Despite allegations to the contrary – including statements in the criminal complaint against Zacharias – head pastor Timothy Peterson said he did not know of any inappropriate behavior toward a minor until the police showed up in late 2022.

In an email response to questions about the alleged misconduct involving both victims, one of which Naomi Jirele never had any knowledge about, Peterson wrote:

“The very first knowledge we had of sexual impropriety by L. Zacharias was in April 2021,” when they learned via a phone call from Zacharias that “within days before, Zacharias and a 30-year-old woman had engaged in a sexual act.”

The alleged victim in the criminal case acknowledged that she had engaged in oral sex with Zacharias in his office at the church in 2019 – years after he reportedly sexually abused her from the ages of 14-18.

She told police that she “felt like she still needed to do what he asked.”

The woman said she reported Zacharias to the Petersons in 2021 after he asked her where he might hire a prostitute, court documents say, and after he requested she send him nude photos and videos of herself.

Because both parties were adults, Peterson said, “we understood that this had been a consensual adult interaction.”

Peterson said his wife, Cherrie, called the alleged victim “early the next morning to check on her and talk with her about the incident. At that time, Cherrie asked her if there had been any other sexual encounters with Laverne (sic).”

The woman denied any other encounters, Peterson said.

“We understood this incident to be what could be considered a moral failure between two consenting adults, but not a criminal incident,” he wrote.


Zacharias steps down

It was another month before church members had any indication of wrongdoing on the part of Zacharias.

During a church service on May 2, 2021, Timothy Peterson requested multiple times that parishioners in attendance not record the service, sources said.

However, the Steele County Times obtained a recording of that service, in which Zacharias went before the congregation in tears and a quivering voice to let them know he had “made poor choices” and needed to step down immediately. Zacharias appeared before the congregation with his wife and both pastors, Cherrie and Timothy Peterson.

“I have made poor choices in my past that I’m not proud of,” Zacharias told the congregation. “These choices have caused me to be unfit for my pastoral position.”

But Zacharias declined to be specific about why he was stepping down.

“I will not share the details,” he said. “Please know I have repented and have been forgiven. I am focusing on restoration of my family and my marriage.”

While Zacharias resigned as campus pastor, he told parishioners he still planned to be involved in the church in a voluntary capacity.

Cherrie Peterson said, “This is not home conversation, this is not dinnertime conversation. We are challenging everybody to be spiritually mature. Just be the church that God wants you to be, and we are in the restoration business.”

At the end of the service, Timothy Peterson said, “Please do not post anything. If somehow you recorded this, please just erase it. This is private family business. You don't want your family business broadcast.”

With ushers posted at the doors to avoid having kids come into the sanctuary, Timothy Peterson encouraged people to come to the front to hug Zacharias, if they wanted.

“I love him like a son, and he will always be loved as a son,” Timothy Peterson said.


Defending ‘Our Good Name’

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

“We were not aware that (the woman) alleged that she had been sexually abused as a minor by Zacharias until late 2022, when the law enforcement called Cherrie,” Peterson said in his email. “The call from the detective was our very first notice of any allegation of sexual abuse against a minor within our church’s 43-year history.”

He repeated the claim seven times throughout the email.

Had they received any reports, Peterson wrote, “we would certainly report to authorities and ban any wrong doers from our church. If a circumstance indicates any sort of abusive (behavior) toward a vulnerable adult or a minor, we would report to the authorities.”

First and foremost, he said, “we abide by the law and legal requirements of mandatory reporting. Matters that do not involve any sexual assault, for example, consensual infidelity between adults, are delt (sic) with in a pastoral manner.”

Though Peterson referred to the contact between Zacharias and the alleged victim in 2021 as a “consensual adult interaction,” it seems to qualify as sexual assault under Minnesota Statute 609.345, subd. 1(d) about “prohibited occupational relationship.”

That means people in a position of authority, such as teachers, doctors, members of law enforcement or the clergy, cannot engage in sexual contact with someone to whom they are providing the services that accompany the job.

Such action would constitute fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct and would be grounds for reporting the act to law enforcement.

Peterson said in his email that “while some of the adult-adult behavior seems to us to be unnewsworthy, we are answering your questions fully because it seems that you have been told inaccurate information about our church and we wish to defend our good name.”


Ryan Jirele’s story

The alleged coverup over the sex misconduct allegations by Christian Family Church brings Naomi and Robert Jirele to a place they wish they wouldn’t have to go. Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of their son Ryan’s death after a short battle with cancer. Ryan was 35.

It’s difficult enough for a parent to talk about losing a child, but what compounds the grief even more for the Jireles is how the church treated Ryan years before – and even up to – his final days before dying on March 17, 2023.

Jirele grew up attending Christian Family Church along with his parents and other siblings. When he was 15 years old, he faced what his mother called “an addiction to pornography.”

“It really had a grip on him,” Naomi said with tears in her eyes. “It was an internal struggle.”

A few years later, he came across a book where he learned about God’s grace, according to his mother. “He got delivered from the porn addiction. He was excited that he got this freedom,” she said.

In a handwritten testimony, Ryan Jirele wrote, “I felt super ashamed and knew I was sinning, but felt powerless to break the cycle… I came across Joseph Prince’s book, ‘Destined to Reign,’ and the good news in this book began to pierce my very core. The revelation of the grace of Jesus overwhelmed me to tears.”

After reading the book, Jirele said he found himself having a tangible experience of the love and forgiveness of Jesus washing over him. “I left that moment knowing I was free,” he wrote. “I sought out to meet with my pastor, as I was eager to testify about what Jesus had done for me.”



Jirele decided to tell Cherrie Peterson about his porn addiction and what he had done to overcome it. He told her he wanted to testify in the church so that others could learn about healing from such issues.

“He was only trying to help people. He wanted to share his story so that other people would know there is hope,” Naomi Jirele said.

To the family’s astonishment, Cherrie Peterson told Ryan Jirele he would not be allowed to share anything. Asked about the reasons why he couldn’t, Naomi Jirele said Peterson told Ryan it would be too hard on him, and Owatonna is too small to handle such issues.

Ryan Jirele quickly became disenchanted.

“To my discouragement, my pastor advised me not to share openly at church in order to keep me safe,” Ryan Jirele wrote. “Feeling like I did not have permission to share my story, I became very discouraged, but didn’t know what else to do but follow my pastor’s counsel. So I became silent with my testimony.”

Added Naomi Jirele, “It ended up harming him by not being able to testify.”

What became even more harmful to the family is when they discovered from other church staff members that Ryan had been targeted by Cherrie Peterson.

“We need to keep an eye on him, especially when he is around kids,” she allegedly told the staff member.

The timeline of the events puts it around 2008-2010, the same time Zacharias was allegedly sexually assaulting a student at the school and church.

Naomi Jirele heard that other leaders were told to keep an eye on Ryan Jirele. “He was scrutinized,” she said.


Ryan’s impact

Despite being shunned by church leaders, Ryan Jirele still was able to connect with other teenagers, like Cody Schultz of Owatonna, who also attended Christian Family Church. Schultz struggled with marijuana and alcohol during his teenage years, at which time Jirele became a mentor to him.

“He was a good role model for me,” said Schultz, who is now married and has four children. “Ryan was someone who cared. I didn’t have a good relationship with my dad at the time,” he said, adding that Jirele filled that void.

Schultz confirmed that Ryan Jirele had left the church on his own and always held the Petersons in high regard. “He always said he loved Tim and Cherrie. He never had anything bad to say about them,” Schultz said.

But the way the Petersons treated Ryan Jirele in return has left a sour taste with Schultz.

In reference to the sexual abuse allegations, Schultz said: “I have nothing good to say about that church. They wouldn’t let Ryan share that he was free of his addiction, but they allowed child predators in the congregation.”

Schultz left Christian Family Church around October 2022, a short time after he became sober. The first person Schultz reached out to after getting out of treatment was Ryan Jirele. “He was so proud of me,” Schultz recalled.

Schultz celebrated his one year of sobriety on Sept. 21, 2023, about six months after Jirele died.

“I was more upset than happy, because I wanted Ryan to celebrate with me,” Schultz said. “He is the kindest person I ever got to know. He will be tough to beat.”


Leaving CFC

Despite the sex allegations involving Zacharias and the treatment given to their son, the Jireles stuck with the church until 2013, leaving after almost 27 years.

“You don’t realize the magnitude of all the icky stuff while you’re in it,” Naomi Jirele said. “We didn’t realize the faults and failures. It’s like you’re held captive.”

The Jireles said it wasn’t until they went through family life coaching training outside of the church where they learned to own and vocalize their values and realized they no longer aligned with leadership at Christian Family Church.

Ryan Jirele was 24 when he left the church, about the same time as his parents. However, Timothy Peterson disputes the Jireles’ account by saying the church “removed him from our church for the purpose of protecting our youth.”

In his email response to how Ryan was treated, Peterson said “we made the decision to remove him because we were uncomfortable with his insistence on violating teens’ personal space… by for example, putting his arm around them in church services.

“Because we removed this man from the church, his mother has been unhappy with us ever since,” Peterson wrote. “She has been very outspoken to others against CFC for approximately the last 10 years,” he added.

“He’s making up a story,” Naomi Jirele said of Timothy Peterson’s account of what happened. “Ryan did not leave until we left,” she said.

Robert Jirele added, “Getting kicked out is absolutely not true.”

After leaving Christian Family Church, the Jireles said they did not go to church for a while because “it traumatized our soul.”


A last attempt

Despite the harm caused to Ryan, the Jireles said Ryan did not harbor any ill will toward the Petersons. In fact, he called them while in his death bed at a hospital in Texas, just a week before he died last March.

The call resulted in an even more unpleasant memory for the family.

In a recording obtained by the Steele County Times of that phone conversation with both Timothy and Cherrie Peterson, Ryan Jirele asked for their forgiveness. “I love you guys and ask for forgiveness for everything I’ve done,” he told the Petersons. “I forgive you for the things you did against me. I’m so grateful for all the love you poured into me.”

However, the recording revealed that the love and forgiveness weren’t entirely mutual.

Timothy Peterson never mentioned anything about forgiving Ryan and seemed more focused on defending what they did as pastors.

“As shepherds, it was and is our responsibility, our job to protect the flock. That’s what we were doing,” he said. “We were protecting the flock from things you know you fell prey to. It wasn’t personal. It’s what we had to do as shepherds.”

Cherrie Peterson provided Ryan Jirele what could be perceived as a qualified forgiveness.

“I forgive you — I’m stretching my heart to say that, because I felt like many good people were disrespected by you,” she said.

Family members say they feel the Petersons did not show any compassion or love with Ryan, even as he was gravely ill.

“It was hugely disappointing, but revealing,” Naomi Jirele said.


Seeking Truth

The Jireles and others say the relevancy in sharing Ryan’s story is showing the irony in how the Petersons handled sex misconduct allegations against Zacharias after Cherrie had knowledge of inappropriate text messages and what they did to Ryan.

“We can’t live with ourselves without saying something,” Robert Jirele said.  

Christopher Jirele, Ryan’s brother, also shares strong feelings about the Petersons.

“It’s everyone else’s fault. It’s never their fault,” Christopher Jirele said. “They don’t want to take responsibility for anything that’s negative.”

For Christopher Jirele, transparency is all he wanted from the Petersons. He said it simply comes back to some core biblical terms — truth and grace.

“You just want them to be truthful with you,” he says. “If you hide one thing, what else are you hiding? They think they are helping people by hiding it and not giving people the information.”

He doesn’t like how the Petersons treated his brother.

“They were protecting the real predators and not treating Ryan properly, by having people watch him around church,” said Christopher Jirele. “It angers me in a righteous way.”

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