The False Prophet of Edmonton

In a suburban industrial park, John de Ruiter built up a spiritual movement, mashing up Christian theology and New Age mysticism. Today, eight former followers claim he brainwashed them into sex. The case against him will test the boundaries of consent.
by LUC RINALDI
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November 20, 2023

The Oasis Centre is a luxuriant aberration on the industrial edge of northwest Edmonton. Neighboured by window-less warehouses and car dealerships, the $7-million complex comprises a palatial banquet hall built of cream-coloured brick, a 200-car parking lot and a thicketed garden with a stone patio and lily-padded pond. When the property opened in 2007, it became a popular venue for conferences and weddings—newlyweds would pose for photos in front of its sleek wood-and-glass facade. But the Centre’s core function was very different: to serve as the headquarters of a mysterious spiritual community called the College of Integrated Philosophy.

In the 2010s, at the peak of the College’s popularity, as many as 400 members gathered at the Oasis Centre several times a week. They’d file through the marble-floored foyer, past the 1,300-gallon koi aquarium and into the two-floor auditorium. They’d jockey for front-row seats before John de Ruiter, a striking fiftysomething spiritual teacher, would step on stage and settle into a padded chair at the front of the room. On either side of him, massive projector screens would stream a close-cropped feed of his face: a shock of flowing white hair, a sculpted brow furrowed in thought, crystalline blue eyes gazing at the crowd. Then, one by one, his followers would approach a microphone to seek guidance.

De Ruiter’s faithful brought him their despair and uncertainty. They spoke of failed marriages and stalled careers, crises of identity and bouts of aimlessness. Sometimes their questions were as simple as “Should I stay at my job?” Others rambled for hours, confessing their darkest demons and thoughts of suicide. In response, de Ruiter might simply stare in silence, as if answering their queries on another plane of communication. Occasionally, he let a single tear roll down his cheek. If he offered a verbal reply, he spoke slowly and softly, and his message was usually terse and cryptic. “When you encounter what I am, that’s a parched, thirsty heart encountering an ocean,” went a typical reply.

De Ruiter claimed to be Christ reincarnated and, like Jesus, he had an entourage of apostles who wept and supplicated and wrote down his every word. He amassed his flock by holding meetings all over the world—the U.S., Israel, India, Australia and across Europe—and encouraging audiences to follow him to Edmonton. Jeanne Parr, a CBS News correspondent, made the move in the late 1990s, intending to film a documentary about him; her son Chris Noth, who played Mr. Big on Sex and the City, occasionally accompanied her to meetings. Parr introduced de Ruiter to future followers including Carl Mindell, a New York psychiatrist who told the Edmonton Journal, “I think he is the most powerful spiritual teacher I’ve ever seen.”

He was also slender and handsome, an object of open romantic desire among some followers, who gossiped about his so-called “chosen women”—the attractive acolytes to whom he paid special attention. Against the odds, they seemed to be summoned to the microphone at his meetings over and over, and he was well-known to have sexual relationships with some of them. “I have moved in being with women other than my wife,” reads his website. “This means being together physically and sexually.” An ex-follower told me a male member once said he wished de Ruiter would choose men too.

Sex was central to de Ruiter’s teachings. He distinguished between superficial lust and a higher form of sexual energy that he said resided in the heart, and claimed his relationships were inspired by a supernatural calling.

Now, more than 25 years after de Ruiter began amassing his following, some of his “chosen women” are telling a different story. Over the past year, eight of them have approached Edmonton police, alleging that de Ruiter used his position of clerical power to make them believe that having sex with him was an avenue to enlightenment. According to them, de Ruiter was not a godlike sage expanding the bounds of love and sex—though he may have believed he was—but a serial predator.

In January of this year, police arrested de Ruiter and his wife, Leigh Ann. He now faces eight counts of sexual assault against eight separate women; she faces six, for allegedly facilitating encounters between her husband and his accusers. They’ve both pleaded not guilty and are out on bail, tending to a shrunken flock of diehard followers in the wilderness of northern Alberta while awaiting their trial. They declined interview requests through a spokesperson. But earlier this year, speaking to media after de Ruiter’s first court appearance, his lawyer, Dino Bottos, outlined his theory of the case. The women consented to sex with de Ruiter, he said, but “have now claimed, years afterward, that their consent was really nullified and not valid, because they were somehow placed under his spell, or that he was somehow deceiving them into believing that they should sleep with him in order to find a higher state of consciousness.”

There’s nothing original about de Ruiter’s alleged crimes. Throughout history, gurus and spiritual guides have leveraged power to exercise sexual control, and their misdeeds often go unpunished. The Indian mystic Osho, Children of God founder David Berg, the influential Zen master Joshu Sasaki—all were accused, over decades, of perverting religious tenets to legitimize abuse, telling followers that sexual submission was a way to advance their spiritual training. None were ever criminally charged.

Until recently, police, prosecutors and even victims themselves often did not characterize these experiences as sexual assault. There was a sense that, by having the bad sense to join groups like these of their own volition, victims were at least somewhat complicit in their misfortune. Carol Merchasin, a lawyer with the British firm McAllister Olivarius who specializes in cases of sexual misconduct in spiritual communities, says that many of her clients initially don’t realize they’ve been abused. “When people are psychologically manipulated, when they are in these situations where they trust someone else, it is not that easy to recognize,” she says. “I’ve had people take years and years to actually understand that what happened to them was rape.”

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Our collective understanding of consent has evolved quickly since the birth of the #MeToo movement. Today, there is a greater recognition that the power imbalance between spiritual leaders and their followers makes these relationships ripe for abuse. Survivors are more willing to report their stories, and people are more likely to believe them.

Lately, we’ve begun to get a sense of how courts will treat such charges. In 2020, Keith Raniere, the leader of the the celebrity-studded sex cult NXIVM, was sentenced to 120 years in prison for starving his female followers, depriving them of sleep, blackmailing them, branding them as slaves and telling them that yogic sex with him was the only way to atone for wrongs they’d committed in past lives. Though de Ruiter’s alleged crimes are less extreme than Raniere’s, the central question in his case is similar: did he, through deceit and manipulation, establish such a firm grip on his followers’ psyches that their free will was nullified?

“As lawyers, we can’t bring frivolous claims, but we can push the envelope,” says Merchasin. “When charges like these are successful, they set a precedent that other cases and other judges, even in other jurisdictions, can use. All of that moves the needle.”

Wherever the law lands, the decision is likely to shed new light on questions of consent: what it is, when it can and cannot be granted, and how and when it can be revoked.

Oasis
A suburban oasis: Followers from around the world convened at the Oasis Centre in Edmonton, the home of de Ruiter’s College of Integrated Philosophy. (Photograph by Jason Franson via The Globe and Mail)

John de Ruiter always had messianic delusions. The second of four children born to Dutch immigrants, he grew up attending a Pentecostal church in Edmonton. Once, at a Christian youth rally, a self-styled prophet picked him out of the crowd and said, “You will be a mighty man of God.” As a teenager, de Ruiter says, he had a spiritual awakening. “I was unexpectedly gifted with a knowing and an experience of oneness with the source,” he wrote in a self-published book, Unveiling Reality. “My awareness of reality expanded in ways that I could have never imagined.”

The sacred sensation vanished inexplicably when he was 18, throwing him into a crisis of faith. Determined to rekindle it, he started sampling a bizarre assortment of spiritual practices: listening to audio tapes of the Bible at high speed, and dumpster-diving and sleeping in churchyards to emulate the life of an ascetic.

In 1981, de Ruiter, then 22, became a regular at a local Christian bookstore, buying out-of-print books by obscure theologians. His piercing blue eyes and ecclesiastical aptitude attracted the attention of the shop’s 18-year-old clerk, Joyce. When he told her he wanted to become a pastor, she took it as fate—she’d always wanted to be a preacher’s wife. They married the following summer and eventually had three children: Naomi, Nicolas and Nathaniel.

De Ruiter supported his young family by making orthopedic shoes, a craft he’d learned from his cobbler father, and working as a pastor’s assistant at a Lutheran church. He quickly developed a reputation as the parish eccentric. During one sermon, he repeated “God wants to set you free” ad nauseam. During another he stated, “God has no word for you,” and stood at the lectern in silence for several minutes. Invited to give his testimony—a common practice in which evangelicals tell the story of how they came to Christ—de Ruiter spoke for nine hours.

Church leadership dismissed de Ruiter in 1987; his style proved too bizarre for the congregation. When he left, several couples followed him—a grassroots community that formed the nucleus of what he would eventually build. They met in private homes, bookstores and acupuncture clinics to analyze the Book of Revelation and discuss their dreams. Among these early followers was de Ruiter’s first true devotee: Joyce’s brother-in-law, Bob Emmarzael. The two men discussed theology late into the evening several times a week, nurturing one another’s most outlandish beliefs. Emmerzael suggested that de Ruiter might be the messiah prophesied in the Book of Isaiah; de Ruiter claimed Jesus had appeared to him thousands of times and “transferred who he is over to me.”

Throughout the mid-1990s, de Ruiter picked up techniques that would help him convince others that the Son of God had, in fact, returned to life in the form of an Edmonton shoemaker. For two years, he met almost daily with a New Ager named Boots Beaudry, who taught him what was to become one of his most effective tools: prolonged, hypnotic staring. After several minutes of unbroken eye contact, Beaudry explained, people start to see lights, colours and visions.

Scientific research backs this up. A 2015 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Psychiatry Research found that 90 per cent of subjects began hallucinating after staring at another person’s face for 10 minutes in a dimly lit room.

De Ruiter introduced the practice to his meetings, replacing Bible study with hours of silent staring. Word spread about the gazing guru, and inquisitive newcomers started showing up. Catherine Auman, an L.A.-based licensed psychotherapist who attended a series of his sessions in 2000, told me that the first time she looked into de Ruiter’s eyes, she started gasping involuntarily. “There was just this energy,” she says. “He looked at me and I started hallucinating. I saw this halo around his head, and then I saw a lion. My internal dialogue was, am I going crazy?” And at exactly that moment, she says, de Ruiter held her gaze and said, “Now you’re really seeing.”

Soon de Ruiter was holding four meetings a week. Charging two dollars for admission, he made enough money to quit shoemaking and devote himself to building a spiritual empire. In 1998, he embarked on his first world tour, holding low-budget lectures where he sold pamphlets, books, CDs, cassette tapes and flattering pictures of himself. Then came multi-day seminars and retreats, earning him hundreds of dollars a head. His operation would later include social media, a YouTube channel and a paid streaming service called John de Ruiter TV.

At the same time, de Ruiter’s philosophy continued to evolve, becoming a mix of messianic messaging and New Age psychobabble. It had a peculiar appeal for disaffected churchgoers and aging hippies. He denigrated organized Christianity as “Satan’s masterpiece” and began dabbling in the occult, including hypnosis, bilocation and astral projection—the idea that one’s consciousness can travel beyond the physical body. He espoused a Zen-like non-attachment to the material world. He told his faithful to live with “core-splitting honesty” and surrender to the truth. Followers were not to trust their intuitions, feelings or thoughts. They were to trust John.

From the beginning, there were those who worried about the dangers of vesting so much power in one man. In the late 1990s, Stephen Kent, a sociology professor at the University of Alberta, watched the group grow from a distance. He met with de Ruiter and his inner circle and advised them to be careful. Kent had studied alternative spiritual movements, and he knew that, without checks and balances, they could inflict psychological damage on adherents. They could also lead, in the worst cases, to tragedies like the Jonestown massacre in Guyana in 1978, when more than 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones poisoned themselves on his orders. “I hope John is able to maintain his delicacy when dealing with his followers,” Kent told the Calgary Herald in 1997.

Yet de Ruiter’s hold on his followers only kept growing. In 1999, a young woman named Marian Vasquez flew from Montreal to Vancouver to attend one of de Ruiter’s four-day seminars. She was feeling unmoored and depressed—she’d just endured a painful breakup and miscarriage—and she hoped he might be able to help. During her first meeting, she wept and felt a sense of ecstasy. “It was very moving for me,” she says. “I didn’t know why, but I thought, maybe this is a sign.” By the end of the week, she’d decided to move to Edmonton.

Within a matter of months, Vasquez developed a deep devotion to de Ruiter. She attended multiple meetings a week, had lunch with him, sent him letters and believed they were destined for a closer relationship. Her friends enviously told her she was lucky to have such a strong connection with him. She wasn’t the only one. Another member, a wealthy woman from the U.S., had purchased and renovated a large house in Edmonton—she told Vasquez that she and de Ruiter would live in it together. “For three months, she was totally convinced that she was going to marry him,” says Vasquez, who had also begun to hear rumblings that de Ruiter was cheating on Joyce with other followers.

By then, Joyce had heard rumours that her husband was involved with two women, sisters Katrina and Benita von Sass. They were the daughters of a wealthy Calgary businessman, Peter von Sass, who had invited de Ruiter to run a retreat near Edmonton. When Joyce confronted him, he denied it. But one evening in November of 1999, as she and de Ruiter were chatting and smoking cigarettes in their kitchen, he started talking to her about a concept he called “weaning”: discarding physical, emotional and sexual needs and desires, destroying one’s artificial sense of self and leaving only enough space for truth. De Ruiter pointed out how well Joyce had weaned off old visions of their life together. The staring, the kooky mysticism, the way de Ruiter’s followers fawned over him—it wasn’t the simple Christian existence she’d imagined. Wouldn’t it be the ultimate act of weaning, he suggested, if she were to allow him to take two more wives?

Joyce pressed him on what he meant, but de Ruiter refused to say anything more. So she confronted him in the one place where he had no choice but to listen. During a meeting that December, she walked up to the questioner’s mic and began reading from a sheet of paper. “My sweetie, you are not God. You, more than anyone, have been sucked into a powerful deception,” she said. “Sex with Benita and Katrina is not truth. Can you just, for a tiny moment, look at what is happening to you?”

De Ruiter didn’t offer an explanation until a subsequent meeting. When he did, he said he was doing what he knew to be true, regardless of the toll it would take on Joyce, their children and the community. “It didn’t have to do with their looks, their heart, their age,” he said to the crowd, referring to the von Sass sisters. “It had only to do with what arose from within my innermost.”

De Ruiter’s followers were stunned. No one had ever challenged him like that. Joyce initiated divorce proceedings, underwent anti-cult counselling and, several years later, moved to the Netherlands with the children. Plenty of others left the group, too, some in solidarity with Joyce, others because they felt de Ruiter had strayed from his Christian roots. Those who remained for subsequent meetings approached the mic with questions like, “If you say people have to be happy with less and less, why are you taking more and more women?” To which he responded, “If I explained it to you, you wouldn’t understand.” For the first time, de Ruiter was losing hold of his flock.

As he began to split his time between the von Sass sisters—spending one week with Benita and the next with Katrina—he became more standoffish, devoting little attention to followers outside of official meetings. From then on, photos taken inside meetings needed to be approved by group volunteers or the von Sasses, who became de Ruiter’s de facto assistants, tour managers and meeting administrators.

Vasquez hoped de Ruiter would explain how his new persona and unorthodox love triangle all fit within some greater plan, but she eventually lost hope she’d ever get answers. Whenever someone asked de Ruiter about Joyce or his relationships with the von Sasses, he offered a nonsensical response or stared at them in total silence. “I got tired of the evasion,” says Vasquez. She left in 2002.

Two years later, one of Stephen Kent’s graduate students, Paul Joosse, started studying the group. He wanted to understand what drew people to de Ruiter—and why, even when some abandoned him, others stuck around. Attending meetings and interviewing members, Joosse arrived at several theories. He believed de Ruiter’s intense staring not only spawned visions but was also a shortcut to a false sense of intimacy. His followers projected profundity onto de Ruiter’s silence. When de Ruiter did speak, his words were so vague that they had the effect of a well-written horoscope: generic to outsiders, powerfully specific to believers. De Ruiter’s most fervent acolytes also provided social cues that underscored his special status: they compared him to Jesus, cried in his presence and swapped stories of his supposed clairvoyance.


Not everyone felt the pull, of course. “Thousands of people have gone to de Ruiter’s meetings and decided that it wasn’t for them,” says Joosse. “Those who are staying are those who have chosen to stay.” Once the true believers bought into de Ruiter’s claim that he was truth itself, they were primed to cling to him. In the 2000s, de Ruiter was reportedly earning more than $232,000 per year, plus five-figure donations from his followers. Once the Oasis Centre opened in 2007, it could fetch up to $13,000 per wedding or conference. By 2009, de Ruiter was worth an estimated $9 million, and lived like it, flying first class, riding a Royal Enfield motorcycle and purchasing a massive $75,000 truck.

In 2009, another debacle cast de Ruiter’s relationship with the von Sass sisters in a new light. That year, de Ruiter took a vacation to Egypt. Benita thought he went with Katrina; Katrina thought he went with Benita. In reality, he was travelling with Leigh Ann Angermann, a German woman who’d recently moved to Edmonton to follow de Ruiter. After their return, de Ruiter separated from the sisters, and marrid Angermann. The sisters later filed lawsuits against de Ruiter, claiming that as common-law spouses and former employees of the Oasis Centre, they were owed money. They also claimed that Benita had been fired without cause, and that Katrina paid part of the down payment on de Ruiter’s $920,000 suburban house.

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In the late 2000s, de Ruiter began a relationship with Leigh Ann Angermann (right), who is also facing sexual assault charges: she’s accused of facilitating encounters between de Ruiter and other women. (Photograph via Facebook)

When de Ruiter first admitted to sleeping with the von Sass sisters in 1999, his followers treated the relationships as affairs between consenting adults. In her suit, however, Benita framed them as something more sinister. “The defendant convinced me to sexually submit to him, reminding me that this was ‘God’s will,’ ” she wrote. “The defendant stated he was the ‘Christ on Earth’ and that defying him was to defy truth, goodness and God. Accordingly, I obeyed and submitted.” De Ruiter denied the allegations. Benita von Sass settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, and has not had any involvement with de Ruiter or his organization since. The non-disclosure terms of her settlement agreement prevent her from providing commentary to journalists.

Benita von Sass’s accusations were a clear omen. But unlike the allegations de Ruiter would face in the future, there were no criminal charges. He did lose another chunk of his followers, however. It was only a few years until he’d test the loyalty of those who remained.

In the mid-2000s, a young woman named Anina—whose surname I’ve withheld at the request of her family—attended one of de Ruiter’s meetings in England. Growing up in South Africa, Anina had always been interested in spirituality, and in de Ruiter she saw a powerful teacher. So, like others before her, she moved to Edmonton. Before long, she was a devoted member, attending multiple meetings a week.

In March of 2014, when Anina was 32, she suddenly stopped showing up. Three days later, her car was found parked on the shoulder of a rural road. Seven weeks after that, her body was found in the woods near Nordegg, Alberta, not far from a resort where the group held overnight retreats.

The police ruled it a likely suicide, but Anina’s family suspected there was more to the case. In diary entries leading up to her death, Anina had written extensively about de Ruiter. “John taught me how to make love,” she wrote in one passage. “We moved in sexuality together,” read another. Elsewhere in the diary, Anina tried to grapple with the aftermath of what seemed to be an encounter with de Ruiter. “The next day I tried to make sense of why he moved that way with me,” Anina wrote. “I was wondering what the consequences would be, whether he is doing this with everyone.” Anina’s relatives pushed police to conduct a criminal investigation, but prosecutors deemed the diary entries too vague to use as evidence against de Ruiter, who denied having a sexual relationship with her. Once again, no criminal charges were laid.

The pressure continued to build in 2017, when a Danish woman wrote a lengthy Facebook post detailing a troubling encounter she’d had with de Ruiter and Leigh Ann. The previous September, she claimed, they had invited her to their home, an elegant four-bedroom bungalow on a tree-lined lot in the affluent Glenora neighbourhood. Shortly after arriving, she wrote, she sat down with the couple in their living room and chatted casually about a recent trip to Nordegg. Then de Ruiter explained why they’d invited her. “For some years now, the calling has moved me to be with other women sexually, and now the calling is moving toward you,” de Ruiter reportedly said. Over the next few hours, the woman asked several questions: how many others were there, and who were they? Why hadn’t de Ruiter and Leigh Ann told the community this was happening? De Ruiter allegedly responded, “The world is not ready for this. People will not understand. I, John, will seem like a cliché.”

The woman took a taxi home, spent several days mulling it over and ultimately refused the invitation. (She declined my interview request.) When she shared her experience online, de Ruiter’s crisis-control machine rumbled to life. Over the course of two marathon meetings in March of 2017, de Ruiter dressed up his actions in metaphysical jargon. “To move sexually with another woman is to move in the same way that we will all move after we have died, not being confined to our relationships, to our marriage,” he told hundreds of followers. College leadership encouraged members to trust that de Ruiter was operating with a pure heart, sending a mass email that said, “What comes from John has always been good.” Later that month, de Ruiter’s eldest son, Nicolas, wrote an extensive blog post acknowledging that, like many other followers, he’d struggled to accept his father’s behaviour. But he eventually came to believe that de Ruiter and his teachings were “true and beautiful.”

For other adherents, this was one scandal too many. After years of excusing his behaviour, disillusioned members began airing their fears and frustrations on a private Google forum called Birds of Being, a play on the de Ruiter–ism “bonds of being,” a term he used to describe the connections he established with people via his unwavering gaze. And yet, for many followers, leaving was inconceivable. It would mean losing not only their mentor but their community—inside the group, members are discouraged from maintaining contact with defectors. Jasun Horsley, an ex-member who wrote a book about the organization called Dark Oasis, told me that de Ruiter’s followers also feared supernatural retribution. “Some people, even if they’ve left, still haven’t ceased to believe in John’s mystical powers,” he says. “If you believe he can astral project and all this other stuff, there’s a different level of fear involved.”

Horsley thinks of de Ruiter’s diehards as lobsters in a pot, tolerating incrementally worsening behaviour. They are not fools, he says, but good-hearted people who have been gaslighted and brainwashed by a master manipulator. “Imagine a sort of enmeshment where you’ve let somebody into your psyche. That’s destabilizing to turn away from,” he says. “They believe John is God and therefore, anything he does, there must be an explanation for it. And they have to stay faithful.”

Saturday Night
This 2001 copy of Saturday Night magazine features the story "The Gospel According to John," which details the rise of de Ruiter’s spiritual empire and the powerful hold he exerted over his followers.

De Ruiter’s final downfall began not with another scandal, but a pandemic. In March of 2020, the group paused in-person meetings. It was the first time in years that many followers had spent significant time apart from de Ruiter. Instead of attending several meetings a week, they were stuck at home—no longer staring into his eyes, projecting meaning into his stilted monologues or watching zealots treat him like a god. With their newfound distance, some followers came to an alarming realization: they’d been under the spell of a controlling egomaniac.

COVID-19 caused event bookings to dry up as well, and in 2021, the College sold the Oasis Centre to the Aga Khan Foundation for $6.7 million and met over Zoom instead. According to a former member, it was during private video calls that women started sharing with each other different versions of a familiar story. These women declined or did not respond to my interview requests, and a publication ban prevents Maclean’s from reporting details that could identify them. But, according to statements they later made to police, Leigh Ann would invite the women to meet de Ruiter at a specific time and place, most often in his home or another private location. When the women showed up, de Ruiter would explain that “the calling” was directing him toward them and that, by having sex with him, they would achieve a higher state of being.

The allegations date from 2012 to 2020, which means that some of the women waited a decade to make their report. This is not unusual. “The criminal route remains very difficult,” says Merchasin, the lawyer who focuses on sexual misconduct in spiritual groups. “The system is so retraumatizing to survivors.” In 2018, she investigated sexual-assault allegations against Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, the leader of Shambhala, a worldwide Buddhist order based in Halifax. The allegations were found credible by an independent law firm, but police filed no charges. The following year, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Surya Das was accused of telling pupils that meditating naked in his lap would further their spiritual training. No charges were laid against him either. And in the case of a supposed supernaturally powerful spiritual guru, women may have other reasons not to approach law enforcement. As Horsley put it to me, “They could start to feel like they’re damned if they start to doubt the saviour.”

Nonetheless, in early 2023, four of these women reported their experiences to Edmonton police. Emboldened by the first round of charges, an additional four women—three in June and one more in September—made allegations of their own.

The trial, which is expected to take place in late 2024 or early 2025, is among several current cases that may clarify how the concept of consent ought to be applied in the context of spiritual discipleships. In the summer of 2022, the Oakville megachurch pastor Bruxy Cavey was charged with sexual assault in relation to what he originally described as an affair with a parishioner. His accuser alleges he told her that, even though their behaviour was wrong, God would forgive them. A year later, the Native American actor Nathan Chasing Horse, known for his role in Dances With Wolves, was charged with sexual assault in B.C. and Alberta for his role leading a group called the Circle that allegedly preyed on young Indigenous women. He reportedly told at least one of his victims that the spirits of their ancestors were instructing him to have sex with them. (Both Chasing Horse and Cavey deny the allegations and intend to plead not guilty.)

Each of these cases is likely to revolve around the section of the Criminal Code that deals with consent—and, in particular, the clause that states that consent is legally invalid if “the accused induces the complainant to engage in the activity by abusing a position of trust, power or authority.” This means that de Ruiter’s convictions—whether or not he actually believed he was the living embodiment of truth or delivering enlightenment through sex—may be beside the point. “If a person rapes someone in a dark alley by force because ‘God told him to do it,’ it doesn’t matter,” says Merchasin. “We don’t need to give any credence to whether he believed it or not. It’s about the conduct, and a civil society can always govern conduct.”

The prosecution will almost certainly argue that de Ruiter—a spiritual teacher, business owner and self-professed messiah—abused his position of power to obtain sex. The defence will likely try to paint a different picture: that the complainants were exercising their free will when they had sex with de Ruiter, a man desired by many. De Ruiter, of course, will continue to contend that he was only doing what he knew to be true. Ultimately, it will be up to a jury to decide whether or not his truth also constituted a criminal offence.

As de Ruiter awaits his day in court, he presides over a weary and dwindling flock. Following the charges, dozens of members, including some in his inner circle, left the group. In their absence, others have moved up to fill their spots. Joosse, who is now an associate professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong, told me that this is standard after a scandal. “There’s a shelf life to the tenure of these ‘top people.’ They often end up being disaffected or disavowed or leaving acrimoniously,” says Joosse. “It’s almost like the story is replaying itself.” Horsley estimates the group has no more than 100 members left: de Ruiter’s sons, former Oasis staffers and long-time members from around the world who still believe he is the messiah he says he is. “I certainly don’t think him being prosecuted would cause them to distrust John because, well, it’s like martyrdom,” says Horsley.

Over the course of 2023, these followers, and de Ruiter himself, moved to the tiny town of Fort Assiniboine, about an hour and a half’s drive northwest of Edmonton. They’ve bought homes there en masse, putting more than a few of the area’s 200 residents on edge. The College’s new gathering place is another couple of hours north, at an isolated campground called Midnight Sky, which the group purchased for $1 million in 2022.

De Ruiter and his remaining followers now hold meetings on the 120-acre property, where he has lately taken to warning about the apocalyptic dangers posed by aliens and rogue AI. Recently, his son Nicolas spoke to the group about another risk: the real possibility that his father could go to prison. If he does, there will no doubt be a small group of followers—the ones who have stuck with him for decades, through all the divorces and debacles—who will patiently await his release, eager for the opportunity to approach the mic and ask what new and profound truths he has discovered behind bars.


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This article appears in the December 2023 print issue of Maclean’s magazine. You can purchase the issue here, or become a Maclean’s subscriber here.