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John de Ruiter, the messianic leader of a multi-million-dollar spiritual organization based in Alberta, has been arrested and charged with four counts of sexual assault against women in his close-knit community of followers.

Edmonton police say Mr. de Ruiter, 63, whose full first name is Johannes, was arrested on Saturday and charged with sexually assaulting four complainants in separate incidents that occurred between 2017 and 2020.

“It was reported that the accused informed certain female group members that he was directed by a spirit to engage in sexual activity with them, and that engaging in sexual activity with him will provide them an opportunity to achieve a state of higher being or spiritual enlightenment,” says a statement from the Edmonton Police Service.

Are a spiritual leader’s sexual relationships a calling or a dangerous abuse of power?

Police, who describe Mr. de Ruiter as a “self-styled spiritual leader,” say there may be additional complainants. Investigators are encouraging them to come forward.

An internal statement sent to Mr. de Ruiter’s followers from his organization, the College of Integrated Philosophy, acknowledges Mr. de Ruiter’s arrest and the charges against him, saying they were “based on complaints made by four former meeting attendees.”

“John will be represented by legal counsel and intends to vigorously contest these charges in a court of law,” says the statement, obtained by The Globe and Mail. The statement adds that there “may be concern” for Mr. de Ruiter and his wife, Leigh Ann, but that “They are okay.”

It says events and meetings will resume with Mr. de Ruiter during the week. It is signed by “The College Team.”

An announcement on the group’s website said meetings slated to take place with Mr. de Ruiter on Sunday were cancelled, and that those who had purchased tickets would receive refunds.

Edmonton police spokesperson Cheryl Voordenhout said Mr. de Ruiter was in custody, and was expected to seek bail before a justice of the peace on Monday.

Zaba Walker, a spokesperson for the College of Integrated Philosophy, reiterated in an e-mail that Mr. de Ruiter will contest the charges in court, and added, “This situation is deeply impactful for those who know Mr. de Ruiter.”

Mr. de Ruiter, a former shoemaker from Stettler, Alta., has for the past 25 years drawn devoted followers from around the world. He describes himself as the “living embodiment of truth.” His empire, which began with in-person meetings, pamphlets and cassette tapes, has grown to include a sophisticated spectrum of paid livestreams, social media channels, conferences and “John de Ruiter TV.”

While the number of followers Mr. de Ruiter has – and the amount of money he makes from them – isn’t clear, court documents filed in 2009 estimated his personal assets then at almost $9-million, including a house, a $75,000 truck, personal income of $232,000 a year and his stake in the Oasis Centre, a lavish custom meeting place in west Edmonton.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Oasis Centre, where spiritual leader John de Ruiter holds meetings with his followers, in Edmonton in 2017.JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

Land title documents show the Oasis building was sold to the Aga Khan Foundation in October, 2021, for $6,650,000.

Police say Mr. de Ruiter is currently holding meetings at an office building on St. Albert Trail in St. Albert, Alta., as well as spiritual retreats out of a campground near Smith, Alta.

Stephen Kent, an emeritus professor at the University of Alberta and an expert in cults and alternative religions, said the complexity of the issues around the sexual assault cases will be “significant.”

“One of the complexities of the case is that he is a religious or spiritual leader for his followers, but the organization is a business. Moreover, he’s calling himself an educator,” said Dr. Kent, who has been studying the de Ruiter group since the late 1990s.

“This case may become precedent-setting around issues related to sex, consent, free will, coercion and assault in the context of fiduciary spiritual leadership boundaries and responsibilities,” he said.

Mr. de Ruiter was the subject of a Globe investigation in 2017, as some followers began to publicly question his sexual interactions with women in the community, and whether his alleged sexual activity had played a role in the disappearance and death of a woman named Anina.

The woman, a devoted follower of Mr. de Ruiter’s who had moved from Europe to be part of his community in Edmonton, was reported missing in March, 2014. She was found dead seven weeks later, 12 kilometres from her car in the frozen wilderness near Nordegg, a rural area where Mr. de Ruiter and his followers sometimes went to camp or do survivalist training.

There were no signs of foul play, and police concluded her death was “non-criminal,” meaning they found no evidence a crime had occurred. Her family later released excerpts from Anina’s diary that appeared to show that the 32-year-old had had a sexual relationship with Mr. de Ruiter. They questioned whether the effects of such a relationship could have driven her to suicide.

The “Frequently Asked Questions” page of Mr. de Ruiter’s website lists a number of responses to “some extreme criticisms of John.”

It says “John is scrupulous in all financial, legal, and personal matters.“ It also says he “did not and does not use sex as a means of control or submission over any person.”

“John did not contribute to the disappearance,” the page adds, referring to Anina’s case. “Her death is as tragic and mysterious to him as to all of us.”

Police say anyone who believes they have been victimized by the accused should contact the Edmonton Police Service at 780-423-4567.

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