Suit to accuse Minn. Christian retreat leader of sex abuse

Minneapolis St. Paul Star Tribune/July 27, 2010

A longtime minister and founder of a Christian retreat in northwestern Minnesota is being accused of sexually assaulting a pre-teen girl whom he counseled.

The sexual-abuse accusations against the Rev. Gerald Derstine will be made in a federal lawsuit to be filed Wednesday by Jeff Anderson, the St. Paul attorney who has rattled the Roman Catholic Church all the way to the Vatican over long-running allegations of clergy abuse.

Anderson's law firm has scheduled a news conference Wednesday afternoon in St. Paul, after the suit is filed in U.S. District Court.

Along with the 81-year-old Derstine, the suit will name as defendants the Florida-based Gospel Crusade Inc., which he founded and chairs, and other entities under his direction.

The suit will allege that Derstine was involved in the "recruiting, grooming and subsequent sexual abuse and exploitation of an 11-year-old female from Minnesota," Anderson's law firm said in a news release.

The abuse took place at Gospel Crusade's Strawberry Lake Christian Retreat from August 2007 to July 2009, the law firm contends.

Derstine, in an interview Tuesday afternoon with the Star Tribune, said the allegations are false and stem from the family camp and conference center firing the girl's mother.

"This issue came up last year," said Derstine, who has run the Strawberry Lake Retreat near Ogema for more than 45 years, adding that local law enforcement declined to bring a case against him and even checked out his computer for evidence, then returned it.

Derstine, who was unaware of Anderson's intention to sue, acknowledged that he had counseled the girl for many years for "her fear of men. At age 3, she saw her [birth] father beat up on her mother."

He said his interaction with the girl, who he said is now 13 years old, involved "nothing sexual whatsoever." He said the family "even thanked me" for helping the girl.

Derstine believes he is being targeted because the retreat fired the girl's mother last summer. She had been doing laundry for the facility for about six weeks but started using "bad language and became violent. She couldn't keep it under control."

Derstine, whose ministry also operates retreats in Florida and New York state, suspects that the girl's family is trying to "get some money" out of him.

He said he has never been accused of any type of sexual misbehavior before.

Becker County Attorney Mike Fritz confirmed that his office looked into the allegations and that no charges were pursued. However, Fritz said, he will be watching the civil case as it unfolds and until it concludes because if "could provide corroborative evidence" that could potentially lead to a criminal case against Derstine.

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