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Youth accuses minister of sex abuse at lake retreat

ST. PAUL -- A teenage girl says a religious leader sexually abused her the past three summers at a Christian retreat north of Detroit Lakes.

A federal civil lawsuit was filed Wednesday, five months after the Becker County attorney decided there was not enough evidence to press criminal charges, by the St. Cloud girl and her mother. They sued the leader of Gospel Crusades for what the federal lawsuit calls repeated incidents of sexual abuse while she was 11, 12 and 13 years old.

Documents with the suit content that the Rev. Gerald Derstine kissed her on the mouth and touched her breasts, among other improper activities, at Gospel Crusades' Strawberry Lake Christian Retreat.

St. Paul attorney Patrick Noaker said the goal of the suit is two-fold: to make the retreat center safe for children and to get money to fund the St. Cloud girl's treatment. Fellow attorney Sarah Odegaard said the girl is not being treated, although the lawsuit claims she suffered "emotional distress, embarrassment, loss of self-esteem, humiliation and psychological injuries."

Noaker said he wants to make sure no other youths are abused.

"A steady stream of children come through," Noaker said of the Strawberry Lake facility, but he had no information if anyone else has complained of sexual abuse.

Derstine's secretary said that the 81-year-old minister was not available to comment and no one else in the organization would talk about the case.

In a letter Noaker said Derstine sent to the girl's family, the minister said he only was trying to be a father figure to the girl, who did not have a father at home.

The attorneys said the girl called him "grandpa."

The girl told her mother about the incidents last year, which prompted a criminal investigation.

The Derstine letter asked the girl and her mother to drop the criminal complaint against him.

Becker County Attorney Mike Fritz said that authorities looked into the allegations.

"There was an investigation and it was reviewed and based upon the information that we had at that time, in meeting with law enforcement officials, it was determined that there was not a sufficient amount of evidence to sustain our burden of proof at the time of trial," Fritz said.

Fritz said that he will watch progress of the federal civil case to see if new evidence comes forward.

Those bringing civil cases, such as filed Wednesday, have a lower burden of proof than when authorities file criminal charges.

The St. Paul lawyers released a transcript they said came from a telephone conversation supervised by St. Cloud police between the girl and Derstine.

During the call, the girl asked Derstine: "Do you think it was OK that we were kissing on the mouth and hugging?"

"I tried to be a close friend to you, that's what I was trying to do and perhaps in the long run I shouldn't have done that ..." Derstine responded.

Odegaard said the abuse became more frequent over the three summers, and occurred daily in 2009.

The girl is identified only as "Jane Doe 134" in the court case and her mother as "Mother Doe 134."

The lawsuit claims Derstine used his authority as a religious leader to influence the girl. It also says that others at Gospel Crusades should have known what was going on and did nothing to prevent it.

Noaker and Odegaard said all but one of the alleged incidents occurred in Derstine's Strawberry Lake office. The other, they said, was in a motel room at the rural Strawberry Lake facility.

The girl's mother had been a long-time volunteer at the retreat center, often working in the laundry room. Noaker said the mother angrily confronted Derstine after the girl told her about the minister's actions.

Gospel Crusades began in 1953 and Derstine became its leader in 1965. Its Web site claims 1,500 active members in more than two dozen countries.

Derstine lives in Florida, where he has the ministry headquarters and a conference center.

The Strawberry Lake retreat, near the small town of Ogema, has been in operation for more than 45 years.

Riham Feshir of Detroit Lakes Newspapers contributed to this story. Don Davis reports for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.