https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/09/02/how-an-exorcism-on-a-teenage-boy-has-cast-a-spotlight-on-a-canadian-bible-camp.html

Heather Richinski says her teenage son is now afraid of the dark.

Flickering lights, which he associates with demonic possession, make him uncomfortable.

And he’s taken to chastising his mother for not being a real Christian. 

All this, Richinski says, comes in the aftermath of his witnessing an “exorcism” at a Bible camp. 

The reported incident has drawn the attention of parents, the police, international media and the association that accredits camps in Saskatchewan.

“I’m angry that my son experienced this, as it was traumatizing and something that he will remember his entire life,” Richinski says. “How it will continue to affect him remains to be seen. I would like an actual sincere apology and full admission and acknowledgment of what happened.”

Richinski, from Saskatoon, says her 14-year-old son remains firm in his belief that he witnessed an act of demonic possession at Redberry Bible Camp this past July.

After several parents complained, the RCMP opened an investigation into the incident but the force has concluded there are no grounds for criminal charges. The Saskatchewan Camps Association, meanwhile, said it was “saddened” to hear of the incident and that Redberry Bible Camp’s accreditation is under a review as a result.

In a statement posted to its website and sent to the Star late Thursday, Redberry Bible Camp says its leadership team learned of a “regrettable” situation several weeks ago.

It said the camp is “deeply sorry” and that leadership is reviewing policies and procedures, including leader training.

“Although an isolated incident, it is one that caused pain and upset for the affected campers and their families … 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,” the statement reads.

Redberry Bible Camp’s website says it was founded as Sand Beach Bible Camp in 1943 and follows the teachings of the Mennonite Brethren Church. It says the camp saw more than 450 campers in 2022. The site says the camp “exists to love Jesus, love people, and grow disciples through the community of camp.”

Richinski, whose family is Lutheran but not overly religious, says she decided to send her son to Redberry Bible Camp because she’d heard good things. He first went there on July 10 and everything seemed fine until she got a call close to midnight on July 13.

She says her son was “hysterical.”

“He was crying and swearing and begging me, saying ‘Mom you need to leave right now and come and get me. He said ‘Mom, save me … I saw demons with my own eyes,” Richinski recalled.

The boy told her a story of another camper collapsing in one of the camp’s cabins in apparent medical distress after a group returned from exploring the wilderness. The boy was reportedly on the floor and bleeding from the nose when one of the staff members decided to perform what the boy referred to as an exorcism.

Richinski picked her son up from the camp the same night. She says when she arrived at the camp, she met with the camp’s executive director, Roland Thiessen, as well as the counsellor who performed the act, Carlos Doerksen.

“I fully expected him to be say we’re sorry that the boys got overstimulated or something. And he just said, ‘I heard everything your son told you and unfortunately, everything he said is true.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ And then he just said we’ve had satanic activity here in the past, and apparently we do again.”

Richinski said her son described the days leading up to the night when the exorcism occurred as “really tired, really hot, really hungry”; the boys would spend the entire day participating in strenuous outdoor activities, which were followed by long sermons in the evening.

It’s been a particularly hot summer in Western Canada — a heat warning was issued for southern Saskatchewan on the week the exorcism occurred. Richinski believes the heat and physical activity was behind whatever medical condition the boy experienced, but says camp officials quickly rejected that suggestion.

“They were stone-faced … I said ‘He’s been in extreme heat for four days, you can’t entertain that this could have been a seizure or heatstroke?’ And Carlos just said, ‘Have you not read the Bible? Demons have been inhabiting bodies for thousands of years.’ ”

She said the school officials initially “fully backed” Doerksen and the exorcism, until media reports about the incident started coming out.

“I think if this hadn’t blown up, they would (still) be singing his praises,” Richinski said.

Richinski says she was told by the director of the camp and by her son that the boy who was the subject of the exorcism was a foster child.

Doerksen did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

Richinski said she received an apology from Thiessen for how the camp handled things, but not for the incident itself.

She’s also frustrated that parents weren’t informed about what Doerksen was teaching the children — sermons about demonic possession, eternal damnation and what makes a “real” Christian.

Richinski said when she picked her son up from the camp, he was sympathetic to Doerksen, insisted the counsellor knows what he was talking about and has accused her of being a “bubble gum Christian.”

“The stuff that Carlos (Doerksen) was teaching my son and those kids is terrifying to me,” Richinski said.

The Saskatchewan Conference of Mennonite Brethren, which founded and oversees the camp, did not respond to a request for comment on how it vets counsellors and its stance on camp personnel performing exorcisms.

Exorcism is a centuries-old tradition practised in Christianity and other religious traditions. In the western world, it’s most closely associated with the Catholic faith, perhaps due to the 1973 movie “The Exorcist.”

Neil MacCarthy, a spokesperson for the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, said exorcisms are “extremely rare” in their tradition and involve a lengthy vetting process and layers of review.

“In a Catholic context, they would never take place in a camp setting,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Toronto describes exorcisms as a sacramental rite of the church that “casts out demons, drives out evil spirits, and heals those who suffer from demonic possession.” It says that only a validly ordained priest under the bishop’s “special and express permission” can perform exorcisms legitimately.

It’s unclear what Doerksen’s official title at the camp was, or what kind of theological training he has. He describes himself as an “Apostle” on his business card and Facebook page.

On Facebook, his work history says he was director of outreach at StepOne Mental Health & Addiction Services until July 2022. Doerksen addresses the incident at the Bible camp in a public post, disputing that it was an “exorcism” and instead characterizing it as “deliverance.”

In a recent YouTube video, Doerksen revisits the event in more detail. He says the group of boys was out watching the Northern Lights when they returned to the cabin terrified, claiming they saw a “seven-foot shadow man.”

“Right away I knew what they had saw was demonic,” Doerksen says in the video.

He says a 15-year-old started crying and pleaded with Doerksen to pray for him. Doerksen says he began to “speak in tongues” to “cast those spirits away.”

He describes the boy as shaking and convulsing, with his eyes rolling to the back of his head and his nose bleeding. He says the lights were flickering as he prayed and that at one point the boy growled at him.

Doerksen goes on to say that he “anointed” a cup of water and got the boy to drink it, at which point everything returned to normal. He says the boy started crying, thanked him and hugged him.

Doerksen acknowledges the backlash from parents, describing the aftermath as an uproar.

“The way they spoke to me was as if I was being accused of, you know, assaulting these boys. When in reality, these boys were set free from demonic oppression and demonic possession,” Doerksen said.

While he disputed the characterization of the event as an exorcism in his Facebook post, he does refer to parents telling the camp they “didn’t realize that this ministry believed in exorcisms.”

“You send your kids to a ministry that has the word Bible in the title yet you’re surprised when the things of the Bible are taking place. You know, it’s like sending your kid to a gay camp and being upset that they’re now teaching them gay things,” Doerksen says in the video.

He says he was ultimately fired over the incident.

In a separate Facebook post, posted by StepOne Mental Health & Addiction Services but attributed to Doerksen, he details a history of being addicted to pornography and drugs before finding his faith during a mission trip to Mexico. He also details assaulting a former girlfriend.

The website of the mission centre that Doerksen attended says it offers a five-month discipleship program. Doerksen says in his post that his time in Mexico ended abruptly after he “stumbled sexually” with a girl.

Richinski said she’s disappointed in the RCMP’s investigation.

While the event was July 13, she says her son wasn’t called in for an interview until Aug. 18.

In a statement, Saskatchewan RCMP said officers at their Blaine Lake detachment immediately opened an investigation upon receiving two reports of an incident involving an employee of the camp and a “preteen boy.”

Initially, they concluded no criminal act occurred.

On Aug. 16, the Saskatchewan RCMP North District Management Team directed the Saskatoon General Investigative Section (GIS) to investigate further. The second investigation, which police say included interviewing multiple witnesses, came to the same conclusion.

The force says it was not able to gather any evidence that shows a criminal act occurred.

“Practices like the one reported may be concerning to some people, but they are not illegal in Canada,” said Supt. Josh Graham, with Saskatchewan RCMP Major Crime Unit.

Richinski said she wanted to highlight what her son experienced for other parents who are contemplating sending their kids to the camp. Considering what her son is still experiencing in the aftermath of the event, she worries about how the boy who was the subject of the exorcism is doing.

“It broke my heart leaving there knowing that he had nobody to call and get him because I knew how upset my son was … It’s all of our responsibility to look out for the kids, especially foster ones who don’t have someone to advocate for them.”

Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh