There had long been sordid rumors of improprieties involving adults at the Pine County religious compound headed by the charismatic Victor Barnard. But in early 2012, two young women now in their 20s contacted authorities with far more disturbing allegations.
They not only accused Barnard, now 52, of repeatedly raping them in early adolescence, they also produced evidence. A calendar marked the times when a sexual summons came from Barnard. Photos showed this self-proclaimed “Christ in the flesh” in discomfiting hugs with young girls or brazenly arraying a group he dubbed the “Maidens” around him like a harem.
Pine County Sheriff Robin Cole swiftly investigated and forwarded materials and findings to Pine County Attorney John K. Carlson. Yet about two years would pass before Carlson’s office pressed charges against Barnard, a troubling time lag for which the prosecutor now owes an explanation to those he serves: the public.
A criminal complaint signed April 11 by the Pine County attorney’s office states that there is probable cause to believe that Barnard committed 59 counts of criminal sexual conduct. Forty-two of them involved penetration or contact with a person between the ages of 13 and 15, and one count of penetration or contact with a person under 13. The whereabouts of Barnard, who led an offshoot of “The Way” ministry, is unknown. A warrant has been issued for his arrest.
The serious nature of the allegations alone raises questions about the length of time it took for Carlson’s office to act. Heightening these concerns is the Pine County sheriff’s public frustration with the process.
Last week, Cole detailed in an interview with an editorial writer the lengths to which his office had gone to investigate Barnard, including sending an investigator to Washington state, where the officer believed he was tailing a vehicle taking Barnard to the airport. The officer stopped surveillance when he was unable to obtain an arrest warrant. Cole said he repeatedly urged the county attorney to file charges, expressing his frustrations “on numerous occasions.”
While there are minimal details about Barnard’s alleged abuse and how he manipulated parents to let their daughters live with him near Finlayson, Minn., the quantity of the charges and the victims’ young ages underscore Cole’s concerns about the time it took to file charges. As courageous former “Maidens” such as Lindsay Tornambe have stepped forward to detail their ordeal, Minnesotans have been left wondering: How could this happen here?
Carlson is one of the state’s longest-serving county attorneys, a position that should make him a powerful advocate for crime victims. He doesn’t get to brush off questions about his decisionmaking, particularly those involving whether he used his office’s authority and resources in the best interests of justice.
So far, he has declined to publicly account for how he managed the case. He has previously ducked media questions and did not respond to an editorial writer this week. It doesn’t even appear that Carlson has directly provided an explanation to Tornambe.
Carlson’s silence only deepens concerns about the time frame. If the complexity of the case caused the delay, then explain why. At the same time, Carlson also needs to say why he didn’t contact the state attorney general’s office, which can provide expertise for county attorneys dealing with serious crimes and can even lend the help of a seasoned prosecutor for complicated trials. A spokesman for the AG’s office said this week that it did not appear Carlson’s office sought help.
Carlson also needs to counteract the damaging impact his inaction might have on other sexual assault victims. Donna Dunn, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said this week that victims often fear they won’t be believed and that those on the fence about seeking justice watch closely how other cases are handled. The delay in the Barnard case may reinforce fears that they won’t be taken seriously, Dunn said, leading to the conclusion, “Why should I bother?”
Prosecutors are given enormous power over individual lives, and they must remain accountable. Carlson can start by answering one simple question: What took so long?