(RNS) — A prominent Anglican bishop has announced a leave of absence after admitting he mishandled allegations of abuse.
Bishop Stewart Ruch III of the Anglican Church in North America’s Upper Midwest Diocese had known since 2019 that former lay minister Mark Rivera had been charged with felony child sexual abuse. But he did not tell people in his diocese about the abuse allegations until last month — which Ruch has called a “regrettable error.”
That decision — and controversy over Ruch’s, as well as other leaders within the diocese, handling of the abuse allegations — led him to step aside temporarily.
“I want you to be able to trust me as your bishop and pastor,” said Ruch in a public letter published Thursday, July 8. “I feel like the best way to walk in integrity now is to step aside as this process moves forward and as efforts are made to serve any survivors of abuse.”
Ruch declined to comment on this story.
At least 10 survivors’ allegations of abuse by Rivera have been reported to the diocese since 2019, with allegations including rape, assault, child sexual abuse and grooming.
According to a letter from Ruch in May, Rivera attended Church of the Resurrection — the diocesan headquarters — in Wheaton, Illinois, from the mid-90s until 2013. According to one victim’s mother, he also served as a prayer minister, preschool volunteer, youth leader and small group leader.
From 2013 to 2019, Rivera was lay minister at Christ Our Light Anglican, an ACNA church plant in Big Rock, Illinois, many of whose founding members were from Church of the Resurrection.
Rivera was arrested in 2019 and is being prosecuted for felony sexual assault and predatory abuse of a victim under 13 years of age. While Rivera’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment, police say there is an ongoing investigation. Rivera is currently out on bond awaiting trial, set to begin on Oct. 21, 2021.
The first to report Rivera for sexual assault was a 9-year-old child whose mother, a member of Christ Our Light Anglican, came forward to the church’s leadership in May 2019. The mother has said she also notified Church of the Resurrection leadership in June 2019 of seven other potential victims.
After Rivera’s arrest, Ruch said two other people came forward in November 2020 with allegations against Rivera.
One of these was Joanna Rudenborg, who alleged Rivera raped her twice while he was living as her nextdoor neighbor. Rudenborg has also reported the rape allegations to local authorities. Rudenborg has strongly criticized Ruch for not telling the diocese about the allegations or taking immediate action to see if there were other victims of abuse.
“The diocese had my rape story, a second abuse story and a nine-year-old’s abuse story. So the people all the way at the top knew for sure of three different sexual abuse or assault stories … And they didn’t make any moves to bring in any kind of third-party (investigation),” Rudenborg told RNS in an interview. “They also didn’t take any steps to notify the congregation at Church of the Resurrection that a man who has been involved with the church for years in various capacities was now credibly accused of three different really serious things.”
After Rudenborg and a team of survivors and advocates requested third-party involvement in January 2021, the diocese publicly shared news of some of the allegations in a May 4 letter and announced they had hired a third-party investigative firm, Grand River Solutions. The firm was selected without input from the survivors, according to Rudenborg.
In the letter, Ruch also admitted to his mishandling of the allegations:
“I made regrettable errors in this process. When the original allegation came out against Mark in 2019, I mistakenly assumed that the necessary criminal investigation was a sufficient next step. I thought it best to let the county district attorney’s office lead a thorough investigation resulting in a clear ruling. I anticipated that after this process we would inform the diocese of the court’s ruling. I naively expected the trial to occur much sooner than it has.”
Following the announcement, Rudenborg and a team of survivors and advocates expressed concerns about Grand River Solutions’ investigative approach. Rudenborg said the firm lacks experience in trauma-informed care for victims and their families and has ineffective outreach strategies for finding other potential victims.
After speaking with Grand River Solutions, Rudenborg and the 9-year-old victim’s mother emailed Ruch declining to participate in the investigation.
On June 26, Rudenborg shared her story of abuse on Twitter.
“Mark hid in plain sight for years, grooming girls, women, and the entire community to accept physical boundary violations no other male adults could have gotten away with,” she wrote, and included several pictures from Facebook of Rivera with minors.
According to Rudenborg, Ruch ignored five appeals made by herself and the 9-year-old victim’s mother asking him to make the results of the Grand River Solutions investigation public. Yet, as Rudenborg’s Twitter thread gained traction online — and after public theologian and Anglican priest the Rev. Esau McCaulley intervened on Rudenborg’s behalf— Ruch released a statement on June 29 agreeing to publish the investigation firm’s full report.
Since then, others in ACNA leadership have raised concerns about how the abuse allegations were handled.
“It took too long to inform the churches involved, the families involved,” said Scot McKnight, an ordained Anglican and author who co-wrote a 2020 book about abuse of power in the church.
“They did not try to find all instances of sexual abuse. They did not incorporate the survivors into the process so that they would know what was going on and what was needed to be done,” said McKnight.
“I’m disheartened by ACNA at a profound level. If ACNA does not handle this case with Stewart Ruch right, ACNA will never recover,” he added.
Ruch is considered a leading bishop in the Anglican Church in North America, which claims about 127,000 members and just under a thousand congregations. The denomination was founded in 2009 by conservative Episcopalians who disagreed with the Episcopal Church’s views of sexuality. Church of the Resurrection was founded in the 1950s as an Episcopal church and became part of ACNA in 2012, according to the church’s website. The church has drawn a number of high-profile evangelicals, in part due to its proximity to Wheaton College and the headquarters of Christianity Today magazine.
In recent years, ACNA has had several high-profile cases of abuse and sexual misconduct. Bishop James Hobby of Pittsburgh resigned in November 2020 for mishandling abuse allegations about a priest in his diocese. Bishop Ron Jackson of the Great Lakes diocese was defrocked in 2020 after pleading guilty to sexual immorality due to a longstanding use of pornography.
In 2019, an investigation by GRACE, a nonprofit that deals with sexual abuse at Christian organizations, found that a high-profile priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral in Tallahassee had sexually harassed men at the church.
As the ACNA works toward healing and justice, Rudenborg — who left Christianity after high school, in part, she said, due to concerns about hypocrisy and patriarchy in the church — notes the church can’t merely focus on individual instances of abuse. It must also address the culture that allows abuse to happen in the first place.
“Justice would be going back in time and having this taken care of right from the beginning,” said Rudenborg. “In a larger sense, culturally, justice looks like straightening out these systems so that the spaces they create are safe for vulnerable people and hostile to predators.”
Bob Smietana contributed to this report.