Exorcism at Sask. children's Bible camp could be criminal, say experts

·5 min read
Redberry Bible Camp is located north of Saskatoon. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)
Redberry Bible Camp is located north of Saskatoon. (Don Somers/CBC - image credit)

Parents of children subjected to an exorcism at a Saskatchewan children's Bible camp say RCMP and other officials need to take the incident more seriously, and some criminal law experts agree.

These experts say details in descriptions of the July 13 exorcism, published as part of a CBC investigation into Redberry Bible Camp, sound like they could be criminal offences.

"I think the most clear thing to say about it is that it's an assault on these young people to be subjected to procedures like this exorcism. You know, you don't have to actually touch somebody for it to be an assault," University of Saskatchewan criminal law professor emeritus Tim Quigley said in an interview.

"And from a moral standpoint, of course, it's reprehensible that young people should be subjected to such things."

Several parents and children filed criminal complaints, but RCMP announced this week no charges would be laid and the investigation is closed.

"Criminal investigations ultimately boil down to two things: gathering evidence and determining whether that evidence indicates an individual committed a crime as defined by the Criminal Code of Canada," said Supt. Josh Graham, officer in charge of the Saskatchewan RCMP Major Crime Unit.

"Practices like the one reported may be concerning to some people, but they are not illegal in Canada."

The exorcism was conducted on a boy late at night by Redberry staff member Carlos Doerksen in a cabin of eight boys aged 12 to 14.

Parker Bond, a 14-year-old boy who was in the room, said what happened to them was wrong. He also said it was wrong for RCMP to wrap up its investigation while information is still emerging.

The following details have surfaced through various documents, videos, audio recordings and CBC News interviews with more than a dozen parents, Parker Bond and others:

  • For four days leading up to the exorcism, the boys engaged in vigorous physical activity in hot July temperatures. Doerksen then lectured them from early evening until as late as 5 a.m. on the many signs of demonic possession.

  • In a YouTube video, Doerksen admits conducting the exorcism, which he calls a "deliverance." He says in the video that the boys were "absolutely terrified … they are cowering under their blankets."

Redberry Bible Camp website
Redberry Bible Camp website
  • Parker Bond says he and the boys didn't want to be there, but felt they couldn't leave because the demons would escape or follow them.

  • In an audio recording obtained by CBC News, Redberry executive director Roland Thiessen admitted he was present for part of it. He said the boy exorcised was lying motionless for a period of time before displaying symptoms consistent with a seizure, yet no medical care was provided during or after the ritual.

  • Thiessen admitted he did not attempt to stop the exorcism. "It was not something that once it began could be stopped," Thiessen said on the recording.

Quigley said all of these elements are troubling. He said legal responsibility could extend beyond the man who actually conducted the exorcism. Anyone who encouraged it, condoned it or knew about it and did nothing to stop it could also be charged.

"The Criminal Code provides for quite extended liability by parties to offence and you don't have to even be present," Quigley said.

Javier Garcia Oliva, a law professor with the University of Manchester, has studied exorcisms and the law, particularly child victims.

He said there is a wide range of ceremonies in all religions that can be considered exorcisms, from extreme physical torture, to a one-sentence blessing of a meal or a baby to ward off bad spirits.

Like Quigley, he said physical force is not required to make an act criminal. He said the boys seem to have endured significant conditioning and psychological abuse.

"If the report is accurate, the young people were exposed to a range of very disturbing ideas and images, manipulated and encouraged to believe that normal, healthy experiences were opening the door to demonic forces. For example, telling young teenagers that "finding a girl cute" means that they might be possessed is very obviously abusive and harmful. Equally, suggesting that a flickering light means that demons are lurking nearby is positively cruel," Oliva said in an email to CBC News.

"However absurd that might sound to most adults in daylight, it might well have been all too real to children at night and a long way from home."

Oliva, who has also studied Canadian criminal law, said it appears this exorcism and the events leading to it could be criminal offences.

"Arguing that the behaviour was religiously motivated will not provide a defence," he said.

Some of the boys continue to suffer paranoia and delusions, parents say. One mother said her son refused to leave the cabin during a recent holiday, still afraid demons were lurking in the forest. Others remain in counselling.

Jason Warick/CBC
Jason Warick/CBC

Quigley said these severe psychological effects could be an aggravating factor and lead to a harsher sentence if anyone was convicted.

Quigley and Oliva said Redberry officials and the institution could also be held accountable through a lawsuit.

"It sounds as though there is most certainly some scope for civil liability," Oliva said.

Quigley said civil courts could provide some "redress" for parents, and accountability for the individuals and institutions at fault.

CBC has requested interviews with Carlos Doerksen, the man who performed the exorcism, along with Redberry's executive director Roland Thiessen and board chair Wayne Dick. None of them have returned the interview requests.

Late Thursday afternoon, Redberry Bible Camp posted a statement attributed to Dick on its website, calling the exorcism a "regrettable situation."

Dick apologizes and says the camp has launched a review that will include leadership training.

"Although an isolated incident, it is one that caused pain and upset for the affected campers and their families. For this we are deeply sorry," the statement says.

"Situations such as this do not reflect the values of our camp and we apologize not only to those affected by this event but also to the greater community who look to us to treat their children with respect as well as provide a great camp experience. We commit ourselves anew to that goal."