JEFFERSON TOWNSHIP, Pa. (WKBN) – A youth pastor who once worked in Mercer is accused of betraying the trust of his flock. A man who was a youth pastor at a Mercer County church is facing child sex charges involving several young victims.
First News spoke with a psychiatrist about the mental effects this could have on the victims.
According to a criminal complaint, 29-year-old Mark Heotzler is accused of sexually abusing at least 11 victims under 18 from 2015 through 2021, at various locations in Jefferson Township.
Heotzler served as a youth pastor at Grace Chapel Community Church in Hermitage for five years, from 2014 to 2019.
Investigators say Heotzler engaged in sexual activity with the victims, exchanged nude photos of himself in various sexual circumstances and requested nude photos from some of the victims.
The investigation into Heotzler’s behavior began in January 2021. A criminal complaint was filed Tuesday. He is facing 26 charges, including sexual assault, child pornography, criminal solicitation, disseminating explicit material to a minor, corruption of minors and unlawful contact with a minor, among other charges.
Much of the communication and photos were exchanged with the victims via Snapchat.
Investigators say Heotzler admitted to many of the accusations and said the behavior was due to his “sexual desire,” according to the criminal complaint.
Heotzler currently lives in Chambersburg, a town in the south central region of Pennsylvania in Franklin County.
He is currently jailed in Franklin County, near Harrisburg where he faces additional charges.
According to a post on the Grace Chapel Community Church website from April 2019, Heotzler left his position there to take a position at a church in south central Pennsylvania. He did not name the church.
In that post, Heotzler wrote, “I am eager to continue growing as a leader and in the new opportunities to minister to teens and families.”
In a statement from Grace Chapel Community Church, lead pastor Aaron Lego says they have been cooperating fully with an active and ongoing criminal investigation.
Lego says they can’t give more information now, but are committed to working through this with everybody who has been affected.
Many people across the country have experienced crimes like these, and experts say the traumatizing effects can lead to a long road of recovery.
“An event like this that takes place in a child’s life is more than likely going to carry with them throughout the course of their life,” said Dr. Mark Matta, board certified psychiatrist in New Castle.
Dr. Matta says it’s difficult for young victims to tell anyone.
“A lot of people in those ages feel like it’s their fault for putting themselves in that circumstance. They don’t know how to handle it,” he said.
Although this could be a lasting trauma for some, Dr. Matta says there are ways to overcome it. He suggests talking to a counselor or joining a support group.
“What somebody has to do in these contexts is learn how to process and identify what has happened,” Dr. Matta said, “how to handle the emotions that come with it.”