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Former pastor charged in sex case

former pastor charged, christian family church, criminal sexl, molestation, owatonna
Kay Fate, Staff Writer

A former minister at a large Owatonna church has been charged with multiple felonies after a woman reported he sexually assaulted her while she was a student at the school associated with the church – and again as an adult.

A second woman reported he had attempted sexual contact with her, also when she was a student.

Luverne Daniel Zacharias, 46, of Medford, faces 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.

He made his first appearance Monday in Steele County District Court.

According to the criminal complaint, the abuse occurred from 2006-2009, when the victim was a student at El Shaddai Christian School on 24th Street NE in Owatonna. It was affiliated with and overseen by Christian Family Church, then located on 12th Street NE.

Zacharias was a teacher and principal at the school; the victim was about 14 when the inappropriate touching began, the complaint says. He was also the youth pastor for CFC at that time.

The woman told police that Zacharias would meet her in the basement of the school when she was sent to get milk for her classmates at lunchtime and during breaks. He allegedly touched her breasts and genitals over her clothing at first, doing it at least once every day, the woman said.

Zacharias would give her notes, tell her she was beautiful and that she reminded him of his daughter.

He also reportedly told her he couldn’t control himself around her, and that she was “like my kryptonite.”

After about eight months, Zacharias started to touch the victim under her clothing, digitally penetrating her and making her feel his genitals over his clothing, the complaint says. The alleged assaults occurred during the school day and also at youth group, where Zacharias was the leader.

He also assaulted the victim in his office at the church, the report says, and continued until she graduated from the school.

The woman told authorities she didn’t think anyone would believe her, “because of his place in the church and school.”

Zacharias continued to contact her after her graduation; she was still a member of the church.

In 2019, he called her to his office in the church’s new building on Heritage Place NW, near Interstate 35, and asked for oral sex, the complaint says; she complied because she “felt like she still needed to do what he asked.”

In 2021, Zacharias texted her while she was on a church trip to Texas, allegedly asking for nude photos or videos; she did not comply, and asked him to leave her alone.

It’s also when she reported the abuse to the church, court documents say, reporting the assault and ongoing harassment to pastors Tim and Cherrie Peterson.

They told her they would hold Zacharias accountable for his actions, but told the victim to “think about Zacharias’s family and kids and what they might go through if she went to law enforcement,” the complaint says.

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.

The day he stepped down, however, a witness told police the Petersons asked the congregation not to record the sermon.

The witness said that seemed “off” to her, so she recorded it anyway.

In the recording provided by the witness, Tim Peterson can be heard talking about “rebuking wrong behavior and restoring people of the congregation.”

Zacharias is also heard speaking, saying he has already shared with the Petersons and his wife, “that I have made poor choices in my past that I am not proud of. These choices caused me to be unfit for my pastoral position. To protect my two girls and wife I will not share the details … The right thing to do is resign from my position as campus pastor.”

When police spoke to the Petersons, they said they knew of the “recent incident” when the victim was about 30, the complaint says.

Cherrie Peterson told investigators they had to come home early from sabbatical after Zacharias called them, saying, “we have been trying to restore him.”

Zacharias was an assistant for the Petersons for 16 years, starting as a “helper” at El Shaddai, then youth pastor, then assistant pastor, then campus pastor.

He allegedly told Cherrie Peterson he “gave (the victim) a couple of hugs when she was 15 or 16 from behind,” and admitted it was wrong. According to the report, Zacharias told Peterson it was “a quick hug, but he shouldn’t have.”

A second woman said Zacharias approached her around 2011, when she was a student at El Shaddai.

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.

The woman said she would tell him no, or freeze and tense up when he asked the questions.

A second former parishioner at the church told police she was in a meeting with Zacharias, Cherrie Peterson and the first victim’s father, the complaint says, to “bring a point of reconciliation to the situation.” The complaint doesn’t clarify when the meeting occurred.

Cherrie Peterson had not mentioned that in the first meeting with law enforcement, the complaint continues, but she confirmed she knew about “some inappropriate texts” Zacharias sent to the first student, who was then about 17.

She said Zacharias “got counseling at the time.”

A search warrant was executed at the church last June to collect Zacharias’s personal file. There was no mention in the criminal complaint of any disciplinary action or meetings.

Members of the clergy are mandated reporters in Minnesota. According to state statute, if a mandatory reporter knows – or has reason to believe that two or more children not related to the perpetrator have been maltreated by the same offender within the preceding 10 years – and fails to report it, the person is guilty of a gross misdemeanor.

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