Charges: Minister sexually abused young ‘Maidens’ kept in camp for years

StarTribune: A 52-year-old man who ruled “like a rock star” over a camp of “Maidens” in east-central Minnesota has been charged with sexually abusing at least two among several teenage girls while they lived for years apart from their families, authorities said Tuesday.

Victor A. Barnard, who has yet to be apprehended but is believed to be in Washington state, was charged in Pine County last week with 59 counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct after a Sheriff’s Office investigation that spanned years. His last known address was in Finlayson, Minn.

Barnard abused the girls starting in 2000 while in a Christian camp through River Road Fellowship near Finlayson, according to the criminal complaint. The fellowship was described in the complaint as an offshoot of The Way International, which describes itself as a global, nondenominational biblical research, teaching and fellowship ministry based in west-central Ohio.

The two girls and several others, ages 12 to 24, were placed by Barnard in the “Maidens Group,” and he would preach to them about giving themselves to God and never marrying, according to the complaint. The abuse lasted until 2009, the charges continued.

Many former River Road Fellowship members spoke of Barnard’s power over the group as their minister and how the girls and women in the group treated Barnard “like a rock star, fawning all over him,” according to the complaint.

A nationwide warrant was issued for the arrest of Barnard, who was last known to be in the Spokane, Wash., area. The Sheriff’s Office said it is coordinating with Washington state officials in pursuing him. Anyone with information about Barnard’s whereabouts is urged to call the Sheriff’s Office tip line at 1-320-629-8342.

The complaint lays out the experiences of two of the girls, now women and identified in the document as “B” and “C.” They attended the camp and allegedly became one of several sex victims at the hands of Barnard while they lived away from their parents:

In January 2012, B told the Sheriff’s Office that Barnard started sexually abusing her in 2000 when she was 13 and it lasted until she was 22.

B said she and her family joined River Road Fellowship in 1998. It was made up of several pieces of land, with one called “Shepherd’s Camp.”

In July 2000, Barnard formed a “privileged and honored” group of girls at the camp and referred to them alternately as the Maidens Group or Alamoth, a biblical word referencing virginity.

B realized that being in the Maidens Group “was intended to be permanent.” For years to come, she only saw her parents on occasion and typically with others present.

Barnard taught his Maidens that he represented Jesus and that he had left his wife and children to live on camp property, telling the larger congregation that this was so he could dedicate himself to God.

B said intercourse with Barnard started when she was 13, and he explained to her that Jesus had Mary Magdalene and other women as followers and that King Solomon had many concubines. He added that “God’s word” made having sex with him normal.

She said the sex occurred one to three times a month for the next nine years and that “other girls in the Alamoth were also called … to see Barnard in the same manner.”

Barnard warned her not to tell anyone about the sex and would hit B when angered, sometimes leaving bruises.

In 2004, the camp property was sold and the fellowship moved to another residence near Finlayson.

In 2009, B was allowed to travel to Brazil with one of the girls who came to Minnesota from the South American nation to attend school. Once B returned to Minnesota, her parents had moved to Pennsylvania and much of the Maidens Group relocated to Washington state without her.

In 2011, another former Maiden — referred to in the complaint as “C” — contacted B. They shared their experiences of being with Barnard.

C said her abuse began in 2000 when she was 12. She lived with nine other girls and also rarely saw her family. C said Barnard also told her that the sex was ordained by God.

In February 2001, Barnard, C and her parents met. Her told her family that he might have sex with her, even though that had already been occurring.

That month, C was part of a ceremony that Barnard called the “Salt Covenant,” a pledge to remain unmarried, virgins and loyal to Barnard until death.

C also said a calendar was kept in the kitchen that chronicled when the other girls would have sex with Barnard, all the while the Maidens would never speak to each other about the abuse.

C separated from the group several times in June 2008 until leaving for good and moving to Wisconsin in September 2009. She became depressed and attempted suicide in 2011. Her brother, also formerly part of the fellowship, confronted her. She then told him about the abuse.

Even after going to the Sheriff’s Office, B and C remained in contact with Barnard, who was in Washington state. Sheriff’s investigator Matt Ludwig told B’s parents about the abuse in June 2012. Her mother “did not want to hear it,” the complaint read.

Her father, however, agreed to speak with Ludwig, explaining that he allowed his daughter to live away from her parents because she seemed happy.

The father described the “atmosphere in the congregation and said it is a very powerful force to face the idea of losing everything — family, home, friends, business and being cast out of the church — if you do not go along with what Barnard wants you to do,” according to the charges.

B’s father recalled Barnard coming to him and rationalizing his having sex with the girls. The father “felt pressured to not say anything,” the complaint continued. “[The father] said he did not know what he was thinking at the time but just remembers feeling so much pressure to not become an outcast and lose everything he had.”

In September 2009, Barnard admitted to the father to having sex with married women in the congregation. Soon after, B’s father moved to Pennsylvania.

A married woman in the congregation said she had sex with Barnard for many years until 2004 because he left his wife to serve the church. The conflict over this relationship split the group, with Barnard and others moving to Washington state.

A Pine County sheriff’s sergeant went to the Washington state address on Barnard’s driver’s license and was met by a church elder who said Barnard would visit occasionally.

Pine County and investigators locally staked out various homes connected to Barnard and spoke with several people. None cooperated with authorities.