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Religious leader accused of sex abuse at Strawberry Lake Christian Retreat

Attorneys Patrick Noaker and Sarah Odegaard tell reporters Wednesday about a federal lawsuit they just filed alleging religious leader Gerald Derstine sexually abused a girl at the Strawberry Lake Christian Retreat near Detroit Lakes, Minn. The photo behind them is of Derstine, leader of Gospel Crusades. (Don Davis/State Capitol Bureau)

ST. PAUL -- A St. Cloud, Minn., girl and her mother sued the founder of Gospel Crusades Wednesday for what the federal lawsuit calls repeated incidents of sexual abuse at a retreat center near Detroit Lakes.

The suit claims Gerald Derstine of Bradenton, Fla., molested the girl during summer camps in 2007, 2008 and 2009 at Gospel Crusades' Strawberry Lake Christian Retreat.

St. Paul attorney Patrick Noaker said the goal of the suit, filed Wednesday in federal court, is two-fold: to make the retreat center safe for children and to get money to fund the St. Cloud girl's treatment.

Gospel Crusades did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Paperwork Noaker and fellow attorney Sarah Odegaard gave reporters this afternoon included a letter supposedly sent by Derstine to the victim and her mother saying that he just was trying to be a father figure because the girl did not have a father living in her home. He asked them to drop a criminal case against him.

The lawsuit claims Derstine used his authority as a religious leader to influence the girl when she was 11, 12 and 13 years old. 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.

Becker County Attorney Mike Fritz said that authorities have investigated the allegations, but no charges have been brought.

"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," he said.

Fritz said the case remains open and he will watch progress of the federal civil case.

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

Gospel Crusades began in 1953 and Derstine became its leader in 1965. Its website 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 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.