Was the River Road Fellowship, once located west of Finlayson, a cult? According to a national expert on cults, yes.
When Victor Arden Barnard plead guilty to two counts of criminal sexual conduct two weeks ago, he chose not to go ahead with the trial which would have lasted around six weeks, according to County Attorney Reese Frederickson. While it was a quick conclusion after a several-year search for Barnard, Pine County authorities were getting ready for it with national experts in the field of cults.
While his attorneys quickly rebuffed journalists when they had mentioned the words “Barnard” and “cult” in questions, Dr. Janja A. Lalich, an expert in the field of cults, was ready to testify that yes, in fact, it was a cult.
In a report that would have been introduced as evidence with the court if it had gone to trial, Lalich determined, “In sum, it is my expert opinion that there is sufficient evidence to conclude that Victor Barnard, self-proclaimed minister, led the River Road Fellowship/Shepherd’s Camp as a cult and that he used his power and control to exploit his followers and, in particular, to carry out the sexual predation, sexual exploitation, and sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of minor girls, such as the victims in this case.”
According to Frederickson, Dr. Lalich is the top expert in the world on cults. A former Fulbright scholar, Dr. Lalich is Professor Emerita of Sociology at California State University, Chico, in addition to being the founder and director of the Center for Research on Influence and Control. She has several books on the issues of cults, including “Take Back Your Life: Recovering from Cults and Abusive Relationships” (Bay Tree Publishing, 2006), and, “Captive Hearts, Captive Minds,” which is used by former cult members and their families to better understand cults.
Dr. Lalich made her conclusion after the review of more than 100 documents and materials that would have been used in the case against Barnard, which looked at charismatic authority, a transcendent belief system, systems of control, and systems of influence, which are four specific features that all cults share, she wrote, saying the “River Road Fellowship/Shepherd’s Camp, led by Victor Barnard was a cult — and that Victor Barnard led the cult as ‘Christ in the flesh.’
“He misused his religious authority. Given his unbridled power, which he relished, he verbally and physically abused his followers. He displayed improper and inappropriate behavior. He consistently and constantly manipulated and exploited his followers, including the sexual, verbal and physical abuse of minors — and other females in the group. As early as 1998, one Fellowship member left because of Barnard’s touching and kissing females inappropriately. Barnard’s abuse of his followers, especially that of the ‘Maidens’ (the young girls selected by him to live with him in private sexual relationships), was long-term, self-serving, intense and cruel, and caused serious harm to his victims.”
Barnard founded the River Road Fellowship in Rush City in 1992. At the beginning, the group was comprised of a small group of families who lived together on River Road in Rush City. As membership grew, Barnard, Dr. Lalich stated, started instituting more control measures, which lead to the group buying land near Finlayson. By 1996, the Fellowship was formally registered and then incorporated in the state of Minnesota as a nondenominational religious organization. Barnard, a self-ordained minister, was the elder of the “church” and his ministry was named Shepherd’s Camp.
Barnard recruited fellow members from former members of another cult, The Way International, Dr. Lalich said, and that Barnard himself had been a Way member and was trained in The Way Corps, an advanced leadership training program for members who wanted to be ministers.
“In my professional life, I have interviewed approximately 15 former members of The Way, whose accounts of their time in the group coincide with the information presented here,” Dr. Lalich noted in her report. “In reviewing the documents related to this case, it becomes obvious that Barnard was deeply influenced by his membership, training, and experiences in The Way — and that he led his own cult in a similar manner, with similar beliefs, methodologies and demands.”
Dr. Lalich stated that Barnard claimed to be the spiritual authority and should be exalted, along with considering himself an apostle of Jesus, and any opinion other than Barnard’s was a “spiritual threat.”
She also noted several false prophecies. “Barnard predicted the Lord was coming in 1997, 2000, 2002 and 2005. At one point, no one was allowed to go beyond 30 minutes of Shepherd’s Camp because Barnard said Jesus was coming back,” Dr. Lalich wrote. She also noted paranoid tendencies, like when he went into hiding after 9/11, saying the police would investigate them, and Barnard also telling his followers they would be attacked by locals and the government.
Barnard also used systems of influence, noted Dr. Lalich. One example was that Barnard told members they would die if they left the Fellowship. He told his young victims, two of whom finally led to the charges against him, that if they told anybody what went on, they would “go to hell or be damned from the church and be an outcast.”
This also included shunning of those who left, which both victims said happened while giving their victim impact statement in court, and also in the press conference following the court.
One female follower, Dr. Lalich said, was used as a recruiter of other women and convinced them to go to Barnard, “this is, to have sex with Barnard” and wives must be “loyal to Barnard, not their husbands.”
His followers had free will, but were pressured to stay, with Barnard telling them, “Do right with God.”
Frederickson noted only two of his sexual assault victims came forward, and there were close to a total of 20 juvenile victims. Barnard lived in a separate private site with his “Maidens,” which were 12 to 23 years of age, and at the start of 2000 were called the “Alamoth.” He convinced parents to give their first-born daughter as a sacrifice to God (that is, Barnard). Parents were told by Barnard that they would be grateful that their daughters were being trained by “a man of God,” and he was training the girls to be “women of God.”
By 2001, another group of girls were taken, this group called Ariga’s Band, which included at least five juveniles. The girls rarely saw their parents once they started to live with Barnard, and told it was OK to have sex with him since they would remain virgins, because he was a “man of the cloth.”
The Maidens were told by Barnard to never tell anyone what went on, which included their siblings, police or any government official.
“The Maidens acted like Barnard’s wives, served him in every way, made his clothes, washed his feet, made his meals — this was observed by other members,” Dr. Lalich noted. Younger girls were also brought in once some of the girls got older.
One Maiden said, “I always made the choice that I knew he would want me to make in fear of being kicked out and being humiliated and I didn’t have anyone, and I was just a kid.” The same Maiden added, “I had no self-awareness about who I was anymore and there was no self-identity. I was in constant fear of doing right or wrong.”
According to the report, Barnard told the Maidens they would lose their place in heaven if they ever left.
More of Dr. Lalich’s research on cults can be found at http://cultresearch.org/.
As part of the plea agreement to drop 67 other charges against him, Barnard admitted to two of the charges against him. The sentence includes two consecutive 15-year terms. After his time served in a Brazil prison is counted, Barnard will serve at least the next 18 years in the state prison system.