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New details on Christian leader facing 59 charges of criminal sexual conduct

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Victor Barnard
Victor Barnard.
Courtesy Washington State Patrol

As the Washington State Patrol joins in the search for the leader of a Christian group charged in Minnesota with 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct, a former member of the group's parent organization is shedding new light on 52-year old Victor Barnard.

Christian group leader charged with 59 counts of sexual misconduct

Prosecutors in Pine County, Minn., say Barnard had sexual contact with two girls between 2000 and 2009, starting with one alleged victim when she was 12 years old.

According to the criminal complaint, Barnard led a group called the River Road Fellowship that operated for a time near Finlayson, Minn. The group splintered away from a larger religious organization, known as The Way International.

Karl Kahler, who's now an editor at the San Jose Mercury News in California, was a member of The Way International in the mid-1980s. It describes itself as a biblical research, teaching, and fellowship ministry. As a young man, Kahler said he lived and worked alongside Barnard in The Way Corps, a leadership training program.

"I just remember him as a nice guy, soft spoken, kind of charismatic, but I don't remember him being manipulative in any way," Kahler said.

Kahler left The Way International in 1987, and later wrote an expose of the organization, which he calls a cult.

A spokesman for The Way International said he had not heard of River Road Fellowship or Victor Barnard before being contacted by MPR News and said the group was not part of The Way International.

Kahler said that after The Way's founder died in 1985, dozens of splinter groups emerged.

Barnard didn't exactly seem like the kind of guy who'd go on to lead one of these splinter groups, as the criminal complaint alleges, Kahler said.

"He was not a leader of his peers, but I could see where if he found the right followers, he could be a leader who could center veneration on himself," Kahler said.

Pine County prosecutors say Barnard did more than make himself the focus of religious veneration.

They say he had sexual contact with two girls a total of 59 times at a secluded compound near Finlayson, allegedly telling one that she'd remain a virgin "because he was Christ in the flesh."

In 2001 and 2002, one alleged victim -- who was in her mid teens at the time -- kept track of of each encounter on a calendar. Prosecutors also allege Barnard told another victim's parents about plans to have sex with their daughter.

The two alleged victims -- now in their 20s -- contacted the Pine County Sheriff's office in 2012. Chief Deputy Steven Blackwell says at one point there were just under 50 people living at the compound, including nine girls and young women.

"What he would do is gather them as his personal maidens or servants, and they're all 12 to 16 years of age. We feel there are more victims out there. Of course, all of those victims would be adults now," Blackwell said.

Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, researches alternative religions. He says splinter groups like the River Road Fellowship often form after schisms with other groups. While their theology can differ, Kent says the small religious organizations usually have one trait in common.

"The leader, who's often a charismatic leader, does not answer to anyone," he said. With no outside accountability, it can be easy for such a leader to manipulate parents, and in turn, their children.

"Parents often think they're doing the best thing because the privilege of having their children in the presence of such a godly and insightful individual, and they never imagine that anything wayward could be going on," he said.

In 2009, authorities say the River Road Fellowship itself splintered after Barnard admitted having sex with married women in the group. Barnard and a number of others left Pine County and headed west to Washington state.

Authorities there say they're concentrating their search for Barnard in the Spokane area.

MPR News reporter Jon Collins contributed to this story.