Officials have been unable to track down a former Saskatoon pastor at the centre of a $25-million lawsuit, but a judge has agreed to an unusual alternative.
Pastor Keith Johnson is believed to be in Oklahoma, but has been “evading” officials trying multiple ways to serve him with the lawsuit documents, according to court records.
Saskatoon Court of King’s Bench Justice Grant Currie agreed to grant a request made by Grant Scharfstein, the lawyer representing more than 30 former students and church members.
Johnson’s son-in-law, who has admitted he’s in contact with Johnson, will be responsible for getting the papers into Johnson’s hands, a process known as “substitutional service,” stated Currie’s written order. If that doesn’t happen, the proposed class-action lawsuit could proceed without Johnson having any say in it.
“It’s not normal,” Scharfstein said. “He was avoiding service, avoiding responsibility, and was making it difficult. We will find him.”
The lawsuit was filed this summer against nearly two dozen officials from the Christian Centre Academy and Saskatoon Christian Centre church following a CBC News investigation. More than 30 former students are alleging they were subjected to widespread deprivations and violence that included sexual, physical and psychological abuse, solitary confinement and homophobic exorcisms.
The allegations led to an investigation by the Saskatchewan children’s advocate, and the provincial government has appointed an independent administrator to run the school this fall.
Students say that’s not good enough. They wanted the government to shut down the school, or at least suspend the roughly $700,000 in annual taxpayer funds that go to it.
The school and adjacent church are now operating as Legacy Christian Academy and Mile Two Church. No one has yet filed a statement of defence, and none of the allegations have been proven in court.
The lawsuit papers have been served on all but one defendant — Keith Johnson. According to Scharfstein and the court records, since Aug. 19 there have been multiple unsuccessful attempts to reach Johnson by phone, at various residences, at a church in Tulsa, Okla., and through various relatives and colleagues.
“It’s very much like Keith Johnson behaviour. I would imagine that he thinks he’s in the right I don’t see him ever like taking accountability for any of this,” said one of the plaintiffs, Cassie Klassen.
Klassen is a former student and church member. She’s also Johnson’s granddaughter. Now living in Dallas, Klassen said she cut off all contact with Johnson as an adult.
“He just has a very big inflated ego and I don’t think he could ever come to the point where he would actually admit any wrongdoing. It’s just kind of like a classic cult leader,” Klassen said, echoing cult comparisons made by other students and the church’s former youth pastor.
Johnson’s son-in-law, Dean Schmidt, initially told an Oklahoma official he would help get the papers to Johnson, but is now refusing, according to court records.
CBC News was not able to reach Johnson by phone, by text or through Mile Two officials. An official at Tulsa’s Church on the Move, which is listed in the court documents, said at first she’d get Johnson a message, but after placing the call on hold for nearly a minute, came back and said she was new in the job and wasn’t sure how to do that.
Mile Two’s current pastor, Brien Johnson, is Keith Johnson’s son. Earlier this summer, Brien Johnson agreed to an interview with CBC, but then declined. He issued a written statement saying they take the allegations seriously and will co-operate with authorities.