Lakewood Ranch Herald

Christian Retreat leader facing sex accusations

EAST MANATEE — The nationally known leader and founder of East Manatee’s Christian Retreat has been accused in a lawsuit of molesting an 11-year-old Minnesota girl between 2007 and 2009.

Gospel Crusade Ministerial Fellowship founder Gerald Derstine has been sued in federal U.S. District Court in Minnesota, Pinellas Attorney Joseph H. Saunders announced Wednesday, standing at the entrance of Christian Retreat, Derstine’s headquarters since 1968, on Upper Manatee River Road.

Saunders has teamed up with Minnesota attorney Jeffrey Anderson — famous for numerous lawsuits against the Roman Catholic Church amid accusations of abuse by priests in recent years — in suing Derstine.

Anderson filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Minnesota, where Derstine operates a summer retreat, Strawberry Lake Christian Retreat, where the suit claims the abuse occurred. Saunders said though the lawsuit is filed in Minnesota, his firm will be conducting investigations at Derstine’s East Manatee retreat, in search of evidence as the case moves through the court system.

The suit claims Derstine used his position of power to gain the victim’s trust and molested her while the girl was between the ages of 11 and 13. The suit is asking for in excess of $75,000, which is the minimum threshold in federal court, but Saunders said he hopes a jury will decide.

“We think the evidence we have is very solid,” said Saunders. “We’re asking for what a jury thinks is fair.”

Derstine is in Minnesota and could not comment, his son and Gospel Crusades vice president, Phil Derstine, told the Bradenton Herald at the family’s East Manatee retreat. But Phil Derstine said his family was not surprised by the lawsuit.

That’s because the mother of the girl who claims the molestation is a disgruntled former volunteer who Gerald Derstine had to dismiss from service at the ministries for poor job performance, Phil Derstine said. Her initial complaint generated an investigation by law enforcement in Minnesota, but no charges were brought, he said.

“It is very sad it has come to this,” Phil Derstine said. “Anybody can file a lawsuit and we fully expect that my father will be cleared of these charges. We stand behind his impeccable record of integrity and character.”

Saunders maintains law enforcement are still investigating Derstine in Minnesota, but even if there will be no charges, he said it does not mean the accusations are untrue. Saunders said he has obtained a recorded phone call between Derstine and the victim recorded by police, in which Derstine admits to kissing and touching the girl’s breasts.

“Just because law enforcement doesn’t have probable cause to make an arrest, that doesn’t mean he didn’t use his position of power to take advantage of this innocent girl,” Saunders said.

Robert Napper, Herald staff writer, can be reached at 745-7024.

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