When lovers turn litigants: Edmonton sisters sue spiritual leader for support

National Post, Canada/April 27, 2013

Edmonton - Three days each week, approximately 300 men and women pack the Oasis Edmonton Conference Centre in this city's west end. Many have come from abroad, from countries such as England, Australia, Germany and the United States, and stay for months at a time, volunteering at the conference centre and attending the three-hour "meetings". These are conducted mostly in silence, with long periods of intense gazing toward the front of the room.

Everyone wants to make eye contact with the man sitting at centre stage, a former shoemaker from rural Alberta turned spiritual leader. John de Ruiter claims to be the "living embodiment of truth."

Local businessman Peter von Sass, his wife Ilona, and their daughters Benita and Katrina were for a long time convinced. Starting in the mid-1990s, the four von Sass family members formed the core of the guru's inner circle. Peter and Ilona offered Mr. de Ruiter financial support. They introduced him to their rarified world, to their beautiful girls. Benita and Katrina gave themselves to Mr. de Ruiter, body and soul. They "submitted" to his sexual requests, despite the fact he was married with three children. "I know that John is goodness and purity personified," Benita told the Edmonton Journal in 2000, once the guru's marriage had dissolved and his affairs with the sisters were exposed. "I'm fully aware of what I'm doing."

Maybe not. The family von Sass has had a change of heart. The parents have quit supporting Mr. de Ruiter and Edmonton's most notorious love triangle has come apart. "The romance is over," says one family member.

Benita and Katrina are now suing Mr. de Ruiter in Alberta Court of Queen's Bench. They claim they are owed certain entitlements and payments from a decade spent as his common-law wives and as high-ranking employees at Oasis Edmonton Inc., one of the companies under which he operates as "philosopher and teacher".

The sisters' lawsuits were consolidated into one action last year. In December, a Queen's Bench justice instructed all parties to get on with the "complex" case and pre-trial examinations were to have commenced in March. A trial is expected to last three weeks, at least.

Documents the sisters have filed in court state the three-way relationship the von Sass family seemed to cherish all these years was a painful farce. Benita claims in an affidavit that she "struggled emotionally and mentally coming to terms with this arrangement. I cried many hundreds of times over the years following, learning to cope with the daily psychological pain, and enduring what the defendant insisted came directly from God."

She alleges that Mr. de Ruiter told her to "sexually submit to him," saying that it was "God's will." He claimed to be "Christ on earth," Benita's affidavit reads, and "defying him was to defy truth, goodness and God. Accordingly, I obeyed and submitted."

Mr. de Ruiter allegedly told her "that God had willed deviant sexual and other behaviours as well as relationships between himself and four married female followers. He was at that time [1998 or 1999] still having regular sex with two of them in addition to his wife and me," reads Benita's affidavit, filed in court.

She alleges that Mr. de Ruiter "currently, and at that time, publicly preached a message of marital fidelity and honesty. The Defendant explained to me that part of his ‘burden from God' was to act against his own message and to violate his own marriage so as to prepare him inwardly for his upcoming battle with Satan."

In a statement of claim, Benita alleges she was fired without cause from a numbered Alberta company controlled by Mr. de Ruiter; it operates the conference centre in Edmonton, which Benita also claims to have helped design. Opened in 2005, the facility is said to be worth $7-million.

The court documents don't make clear what led to her breakup with Mr. de Ruiter; however, Benita claims that in May 2009, she and her father confronted the guru about alleged "business irregularities" and excessive "personal expenditures." Things seem to have gone awry after that.

In her own statement of claim, Katrina alleges she also helped Mr. de Ruiter build his business and that she paid the bulk of a down payment made on a house purchased in his name six years ago for $920,000.

Katrina alleges she was Mr. de Ruiter's "adult interdependent partner." However, she claims that tension grew between the couple and Mr. de Ruiter began treating her "more like an employee rather than a wife…. Apparently, he entered into a relationship with another woman."

Katrina claims she is entitled to $110,000 a year in support payments, plus the house.

Neither the von Sass sisters, their lawyers nor Mr. de Ruiter's lawyer responded to interview requests from the National Post.

Mr. de Ruiter has not filed a defence to Katrina's statement of claim; however, he has responded to most of Benita's allegations in a statement of defence and an affidavit. He alleges by counterclaim that Benita "misappropriated funds from Oasis" in the amount of $101,000. The money was used "to pay for personal expenses that had nothing to do with the company," he claims.

Mr. de Ruiter, 53, acknowledges having had intimate relationships with both sisters, beginning in 1998 when Benita was 34 and Katrina 26. In his affidavit, he says that he stayed with Benita "at her house during the weeks that I lived with her. When I was with Katrina, I lived in Katrina's condominium." He notes that he did not cover any of their household expenses, aside from monthly mortgage payments he made on the Edmonton house purchased in 2007.

He denies these were "marriage-like" relationships. Rather, the sisters were like his students. He says in his affidavit that Benita, now 49, "was a keen student of my teachings, but later ceased to attend meetings and said she only remained in the organization for mercenary reasons. She began to treat me with contempt."

In 1999, Mr. de Ruiter's first wife, Joyce, learned about his secret relations with the von Sass sisters, whom he described to her as "two more wives." Joyce publicly confronted her husband about his affairs during one of his Edmonton meetings. She thought everyone would be shocked. Most weren't. Mr. de Ruiter said little then, but explained later that having sex with the von Sass sisters was the "truth."

Joyce didn't buy it. She was fed up. She had stuck with her husband for 18 years. They had studied together at seminaries and bible colleges. Mr. de Ruiter had aspired to be a Lutheran preacher, but he wasn't very good at it. Then he slowly transformed into a sort of new age mystic. All references to Christ were eventually dropped. Joyce watched, intrigued and a bit skeptical as her husband developed a small, cult-like following.

Then he was invited to appear at a spiritual retreat outside Edmonton, run by Peter and Ilona von Sass. The couple's influence and connections allowed him to attract more "seekers" and he began to appear at larger venues: in Edmonton, Calgary and then Hawaii, Australia and across Europe. He would gaze at his audience; they would stare back.

Occasionally, he would utter a few banal phrases. "Follow what you know," he would say. "Nurture the kernel inside."

The Oasis Conference Centre in west Edmonton is a larger, much more glamorous facility than any of the guru's previous digs. On Sunday, I looked for footprints cast in the sidewalk leading to the building's entrance. Benita claims in an affidavit that she, Katrina and Mr. de Ruiter had left the impressions "to represent our inextricable relationship to the building and to each other." None were visible; perhaps the footprints have been removed.

The sisters used to take turns accompanying Mr. de Ruiter to the stage inside the centre's main hall. A different woman does that now. Leigh Ann Angermann was legally married to Mr. de Ruiter in 2009, the year the von Sass family left the fold. Tall, attractive and (according to Benita) independently wealthy, Ms. Angermann attended one of Mr. de Ruiter's seminars in Germany years ago, and then moved to Edmonton to work at the conference centre.

A volunteer collects the $8 entrance fee charged to each guest. On Sunday, almost every chair inside the centre was filled. Mr. de Ruiter and his wife walked halfway down an aisle together, stage right. They separated and the guru settled into his chair. He attached a small microphone headset. Cameras projected his image on two giant screens.

Mr. de Ruiter stared ahead in silence, then slowly scanned the room: Left, then right, as if assessing his audience. Five minutes passed, then ten, then twenty. Nothing was said. Nothingness, emptiness; these are his message. Let go of everything, he counsels. Allow the self its layers of "death."

Mr. de Ruiter usually has halting, verbal exchanges with two or three members of his audience, people who have asked to speak from "the chair" that's placed directly opposite him. These exchanges often begin and end in the same fashion: The "seekers" explain that no matter how hard they have tried to discern the guru's message, they remain lost or confused.

"I'm not tuning in the way I used to and something's wrong with me," said a woman who took "the chair" on Sunday. "There are larger things going on here, but I don't have any evidence. I'm just not sure."

"When you know the truth, you need no evidence," Mr. de Ruiter replied after a long pause.

"I mean this in a kind way," the woman said, "but my real self doesn't have a foggy clue about what's going on here and will never be able to figure it out."

"You don't need to understand what you know for you to believe in what you know," said Mr. de Ruiter.

There was more cryptic banter and the woman seemed to come around. "All I know is that something's happening and that's enough," she said.

The guru spoke: "If you knew that you were going to die in one minute, you would say that you're ready now."

Three minutes passed.

"Yes," the woman agreed.

Then more silence.

"I'm noticing tiny little touches in my body," she said at last, and then began describing how "particles" were "permeating the whole room."

She tipped her head back and began to moan. "This is what I know and love," she cried. "This is what I am."

Paul Joosse has witnessed similar scenes many times. A University of Alberta PhD candidate in sociology, Mr. Joosse spent almost three years studying Mr. de Ruiter. He owes all his guru successes, Mr. Joosse says, to his devotees and their willingness to ascribe to him superhuman powers, to ignore his obvious hypocrisies and his sordid past. Mr. de Ruiter offers them more riddles and everyone gets away with calling them truths.

Benita von Sass, in her affidavit, alleges Mr. de Ruiter is "an opportunist and a huckster," and not much else.

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