Saskatoon·CBC Investigates

Abuse allegations from students at private Sask. Christian school are '100% true,' says former top official

A former top official with a private Saskatoon Christian school and church says he believes the students now coming forward with stories of violent discipline, solitary confinement, sexual abuse and bizarre religious rituals — because he was both a victim and a perpetrator.

Garrett Davis, former youth pastor at school, says he was 'brainwashed'

Former students of the Christian Centre Academy, now called Legacy Christian Academy, have launched a class action lawsuit alleging years of physical, emotional and sexual abuse by staff and leadership at the school. (Jason Warick/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains disturbing details.

A former top official with a private Saskatoon Christian school and church says he believes the students now coming forward with stories of violent discipline, solitary confinement, sexual abuse and bizarre religious rituals — because he was both a victim and a perpetrator.

"All of it is 100 per cent true," Garrett Davis, who was the youth pastor at Saskatoon Christian Centre from about 2002 to 2013, said in an interview with CBC News.

"I feel that it's important that I lend my solidarity to every individual who's speaking out."

More than 30 students have spoken out, including Davis's own child Garrison, during a CBC News investigation in the past few weeks. Most have also filed criminal complaints with Saskatoon police, and a proposed class action lawsuit was filed in court this week.

Nearly two dozen officials, including Davis, have been accused of various abuses. All were volunteers, staff, teachers, leaders or "elders" with Saskatoon Christian Centre church or Christian Centre Academy school. The names of the church and school have since been changed to Mile Two Church and Legacy Christian Academy, but students say they continue to operate as one integrated institution.

Davis admits he was present multiple times when students were hit on their buttocks with large wooden paddles hard enough to leave them limping and bruised. Davis also admits he was one of four adults who "spoke in tongues" and conducted an exorcism on former student Coy Nolin to chase out what they called his "gay demons."

A man with grey hair and a grey beard looks at the camera.
Garrett Davis was the youth pastor at Saskatoon Christian Centre from about 2002 to 2013. He says the allegations former students have made about violent discipline, solitary confinement, sexual abuse and bizarre religious rituals are all true. (Submitted by Garrett Davis)

Davis never reported any of it to regulators or police, and says he'll regret that for the rest of his life.

Not only did Davis remain silent — he said he and other staff aggressively criticized and ostracized any critics of the institution, both internal and external.

"I was led, taught and told to manipulate, intimidate and gaslight people," said Davis, who now lives in Portland, Oregon.

Leaving church 'cost me almost everything': Davis

Davis was born in Texas. When he was three years old, his mother married Pastor Keith Johnson and they moved up to Saskatoon, where Johnson would assume the top role at the church and school.

Davis and others said Johnson's edicts and declarations were to be followed without question. That extended to the family home, where Davis said he was paddled regularly and "brainwashed" into believing the outside world was evil.

"I did not see my life with any choices," Davis said.

Johnson authored the 85-page manual called The Child Training Seminar, which students say was sold in the gift shop along with Bibles and a selection of hand-made wooden paddles.

More than 20 pages are devoted to the benefits and practical applications of "scriptural discipline." It states "ungodly" professors, researchers and psychologists who opposed corporal punishment are "influenced by the devil" and should be ignored.

"Sometimes, spanking will leave marks on the child. If some liberal were to hear this, they'd immediately charge us with advocating child-beating," states the handbook.

"Have him bend over and apply the paddle firmly. Don't permit any wiggling around or jumping around. Don't allow any pre-discipline howling and sniveling. Don't let his crying and begging diminish the severity of punishment."

Davis confirmed the allegations that students were forced to campaign for certain politicians, and that political work regularly took place inside the church, a registered charity. He said there would be membership and volunteer sign-up sheets in the back of the church following services.

Davis said Johnson was particularly close to Saskatoon's longest-serving mayor, Don Atchison. Students have described being forced by officials to door knock or stand on street corners campaigning for Atchison.

"Keith loved being close to Don. We would bend over backwards for Don," Davis said.

Davis said civic politicians don't control social policies, but that Atchison benefited from the support, and that Johnson believed his stature among his congregants was enhanced by the mayor's presence.

Atchison has not responded to CBC News interview requests.

Coun. Randy Donauer, a longtime church member and sitting member of Saskatoon city council, has said the political activity was inappropriate but stopped around 2013. 

Davis said that, toward the end of his decade as youth pastor, he grew increasingly conflicted by the violence and intimidation at a supposedly Christian institution. He said his disillusionment was noticed by Johnson.

"He would talk down to me and berate me, and told me I needed to be spiritually circumcised," Davis said. 

Davis said he and his wife stopped paddling their own three children, but lied to Johnson about it to avoid his wrath.

A man wih grey hair and an adolescent boy stand in front of some Guatamalan pyramids.
Pastor Keith Johnson, right, and step-son Garrett Davis in the early 1990s during a mission trip to Guatemala. (Submitted by Garrett Davis)

Anyone not following the rules faced swift consequences that included banishment from the church and school, Davis said.

Davis said that, at one dinner with Johnson, one of the Davis's kids didn't eat their green beans and that Johnson demanded Davis paddle the child. When Davis hesitated, Johnson told him, "You aren't fit to be a father, or to work at the school," according to Davis.

'Fled' to U.S.

Shortly after, Davis and his wife packed their belongings and "fled" with their family to the U.S., he said. All of their friends — and financial assets — were tied up in the church and school, but he cut all ties. He had grown up with the surname Johnson, but changed it back to Davis, his birth father's name.

"I finally got myself and my family out of there. And it cost me almost everything. But it's the best decision I ever made," Davis said.

Keith Johnson left Saskatoon several years ago. One of his other sons, Brien Johnson, is now the head pastor at Mile Two Church.

CBC News has made various unsuccessful attempts to reach Keith Johnson, believed to be in the southern U.S. 

A man with grey hair wearing a suit stands on a stage.
Keith Johnson preaching as a guest at Lifehouse Fellowship Church in Midland, Texas, in 2021. Johnson formerly held the top role at the Saskatoon Christian Centre church and Christian Centre Academy school. (Lifehouse Fellowship Church/YouTube)

Brien Johnson emailed CBC News Monday promising to do an interview Tuesday, but then later declined.

Legacy Christian Academy and Mile Two Church officials have issued two written statements to CBC News. They said they'll support any former student who asks.

"We have and will cooperate fully with any officials or authorities that are investigating their actions," read the statement.

"We continue to encourage and support any former student who believes they were abused or assaulted to file a report with the police so these matters can be investigated and dealt with properly and legally."

They said paddling and other corporal punishment has not occurred at the school in more than two decades, a point disputed by more than a dozen students interviewed.

Officials also say they've made multiple public and private attempts to apologize, but none of the students interviewed were aware of any such gestures.

The Saskatchewan NDP called on the provincial government to suspend more than $700,000 in public funds given annually to the school, until these serious allegations can be investigated.

Education Minister Dustin Duncan has declined multiple interview requests. His office said no action will be considered until the police investigation is complete.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

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