(RNS) — For more than two decades, Mark Rivera was a beloved volunteer leader of two churches in the Chicago suburbs. Known for his charisma and humor, the husband and father of four often boasted that he was the godfather of over 30 children in his community.
Church leaders and members in the Diocese of the Upper Midwest, of the Anglican Church in North America, trusted Rivera’s spiritual authority. According to reports from former Christ Our Light Anglican Church parishioners, they dismissed his frequent physical affection — his habit of kissing young girls on the cheek or inviting teenagers to sit on his lap — as “just Mark being Mark.”
Then, in May 2019, a 9-year-old child told her mother that Rivera had abused her, according to the woman, Cherin Marie, who asked that her last name not be used to protect the family’s privacy. For those who believed the alleged victim, the revelation was earth-shattering. Yet many in the small community, many of them family or neighbors of the accused or his accuser, doubted the child’s story.
Since then, nine additional people have made allegations of abuse by Rivera, including child sexual abuse, grooming, rape and assault, and Rivera has been charged with felony child sexual assault and abuse of the 9-year-old. To date, the diocese has publicly acknowledged only some of the allegations, and according to abuse prevention advocates, has downplayed the access he had to children and others while in church leadership.
ACNA, a splinter group of Episcopal and Church of Canada congregations, was founded in 2009 after its member churches rejected their former denominations’ acceptance of LGBTQ clergy and marriage for same-sex couples.
Rivera held several volunteer leadership positions at Church of the Resurrection, the Diocese of the Upper Midwest’s headquarters in Wheaton, Illinois, from the mid-1990s until 2013. From 2013-2019 he was a lay minister at Christ Our Light Anglican Church in Big Rock, Illinois, a church planted by Church of the Resurrection members.
In 2014, Holly, another member of the church who asked to keep her last name private, was visiting Rivera, her godfather, in Big Rock. Holly, then 16, said she remembers being in a basement room that Rivera called the “man cave” while he was on the computer. When he went to the bathroom, Holly said, she saw tabs with pornographic images open on his computer.
“After I saw that, I felt guilty, disgusted and just really gross,” said Holly, now 23. “And I remember feeling like it was really hard to breathe, and knowing what to do, because I was waiting for him to walk me home.”
As she got up to leave, Holly said, she saw Rivera had left the bathroom door open and was masturbating.
“I just felt so uncomfortable,” said Holly. “The door was right there, and you could see everything. So why would he do that unless he wanted me to see it?”
Holly said she later texted Rivera that seeing pornography on his computer had made her uncomfortable. Rivera allegedly told her they were just pop-up ads. At least one other person said they encountered Rivera watching porn while they were visiting him in his basement on other occasions.
Holly also said Rivera used to touch her frequently while they were with other Christ Our Light Anglican members. When she was 15, Rivera asked her to sit in his lap and began rubbing her feet, telling her how beautiful her arches were.
“When I think about it now, that was just incredibly inappropriate,” said Holly.
Cherin’s sister, Alice, who asked to keep her last name private, claimed that Rivera would often touch children without their consent. “He would pick up kids without asking them if they wanted to be picked up,” she said. “He was very physically affectionate, always hugging. He wouldn’t take no for an answer when it came to touching the kids.”
If questioned, several of his accusers said, Rivera would attribute his behavior to his Puerto Rican culture.
Another church member, who wished to remain anonymous, said Rivera would often give her and other young girls “prolonged and repeated hugs.” The best friend of one of Rivera’s daughters and a cousin of Cherin’s, she attended Christ Our Light Anglican — known as COLA — and had sleepovers at Rivera’s house growing up.
In 2015, when she was 13, she alleged, she and Rivera’s daughter were sleeping in Rivera’s basement when he came in and started touching her feet, then feeling his way up her legs. She said she thrashed around and Rivera left. The next day, she said nothing, thinking Rivera must have been sleepwalking.
The same thing happened again two years later, she claimed. “That time, I was actually getting scared,” she said. “I thought, oh shoot, he knows what he’s doing. And it freaked me out.”
Rivera would often watch movies with this girl and his own kids. She said Rivera offered and even pressured her to drink alcohol and would insist on sitting next to her to watch the movies. On two occasions, she said, Rivera touched her between her legs, then apologized, saying he meant to reach for the popcorn.
Christ Our Light Anglican, which drew no more than 40 people on Sundays, lacked any official mechanism for reporting alleged abuse. So when Cherin went public with her daughter’s allegations, she became an unofficial point-person for collecting other allegations against Rivera.
According to Cherin, Holly shared her allegations with Cherin as did the mother of the teenager who had watched movies with Rivera.
Cherin, who then attended Church of the Resurrection, reported Holly’s and the other woman’s allegations to Val McIntyre, head of pastoral care at Church of the Resurrection, in June 2019. Cherin also named three others who made allegations against Rivera and two other vulnerable youth demonstrating warning signs of abuse. According to Cherin, McIntyre promised to report all the allegations to her supervisor, Bishop Stewart Ruch III.
In an email to Religion News Service, McIntyre said she could not say whether she reported the allegations to Ruch because she is under formal review by the Anglican Church in North America and is part of an ongoing independent investigation by an outside firm appointed by the diocese.
Ruch, who is taking a leave of absence during the investigation, did not respond to a request for comment. However, in a December 2020 email to a former Church of the Resurrection member, Ruch said he was told of some allegations against Rivera, but didn’t remember all of them.
Regardless of whether McIntyre reported the allegations to Ruch in June 2019, the alleged survivors say they did not receive the support they needed. “No one in either church community reached out at any point,” said the anonymous alleged victim, who said an investigator from Grand River Solutions, the firm hired by the Upper Midwest Diocese, became the first to inquire into her allegations and offer counseling only a few weeks ago, two years after Cherin said she reported her claims to McIntyre.
Holly also said that no one at COLA or Church of the Resurrection ever reached out to her.
“They never followed up with me or asked me any questions to further clarify or even hear the story from myself,” said Holly. “I was highly involved in the youth group and none of my contact information has changed. There is no excuse to not reaching out to a victim who suffered abuse at the hand of someone so highly involved in the church.” Holly said she stopped attending churches altogether when she was 18.
Joanna Rudenborg was never a member of COLA, but she was the godchild of the church’s priest, the Rev. Rand York, and lived in Big Rock for a number of years and knew Rivera as a neighbor. In February 2018, Rudenborg, then 39, was at Rivera’s house with friends when she drank to the point of blacking out.
“I woke up the next morning in my bed, naked, with a pounding headache,” she wrote in a November 2020 email to Rivera’s wife that she shared with RNS.
Her memory of what happened after the gathering was blank, except for a vague memory of Rivera hugging her and a feeling that something was not right, she said. Rivera came over that morning and told Rudenborg that he and another church leader had walked her home because she had been too inebriated to do so without help. Then, according to Rudenborg, Rivera told her that she had seduced him when they were alone and they slept together.
Because she was in shock and had no alternative narrative, she said she believed Rivera. But his behavior didn’t make sense.
“Somehow I had had a sexual encounter with a married Christian man — and a core member of my godparents’ community — that I did not remember, and not only was he not in the least bit ashamed of his actions, but he actively celebrated ‘our night together’ as a glorious thing, and was quite determined that he would never, under any circumstance, tell his wife,” she wrote.
Over the next few weeks, Rudenborg said, Rivera repeatedly professed his love for her and asked her to have an affair with him. She refused, but remained friends with him.
By March 2020, Rivera had been arrested in connection with Cherin’s daughter’s allegations and was out on bond, living at home. Rudenborg attended another gathering at the Riveras’, and at the end of the night, she blacked out again. She said she woke up the next day at home, recalling nothing but two brief memories of Rivera doing something sexual to her and then preparing to leave.
Rivera returned the next day and told Rudenborg again that she had seduced him, Rudenborg said. “The way he told the story, I assaulted him,” she wrote. “In retrospect, this seems physically impossible, given his relatively greater upper body strength and the fact that I was drunk (or drugged) enough to black out.”
Rivera’s alleged account crushed Rudenborg, and she said she sank into a depression. In November 2020, she began to suspect that she had been raped. “It is only within the last couple weeks that I have clearly realized that I was raped twice, lied to who knows how much, and generally taken in by a master manipulator,” Rudenborg wrote to Rivera’s wife.
Rudenborg reported her allegations to COLA leadership in November 2020 and filed a criminal complaint against Rivera with Kane County a month later. Kane County confirmed that there was an ongoing investigation concerning Rudenborg’s case. Rudenborg said Ruch, who had heard about her allegation from another church member, offered to meet with her but did not inquire about or offer to pay for counseling.
According to Rudenborg, Rivera has sexually abused at least one other survivor while out on bond. Rivera’s lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, she said, members of COLA — which the diocese shut down in the wake of Rudenborg’s November 2020 allegations — gradually cut off communications with her. No one from COLA apologized for what happened to her or asked how they could support her.
In January 2021, Rudenborg sent an email to Ruch detailing 10 allegations against Rivera and asking the diocese to hire a third-party investigative firm. On May 4, Ruch informed the diocese of three of the allegations for the first time and announced that the diocese had hired Grand River Solutions to investigate.
After the announcement, Cherin emailed Ruch on May 5, asking him to alert the members of the diocese that the allegations involved 10 potential victims, seven more than were listed. She also asked Ruch to share that Rivera was being prosecuted on nine counts of child sexual abuse.
“I am concerned that the assertion you made about this creates a false picture and downplays the scope and seriousness of Mark’s behavior towards (Cherin’s daughter) and other victims at Rez and COLA,” she told the bishop in an email shared with RNS. “I also think it’s very important to clearly name the number of victims, what the actual allegations are, and expand on Mark’s involvement at Rez and with Rez families, so as to not minimize or downplay the gravity and seriousness of this situation, especially as it relates to Rez.”
Rudenborg said that despite her instinct to believe the 2019 allegations against Rivera, she initially convinced herself to give him the benefit of the doubt. Rivera has likable qualities, was often a good neighbor and had the support of the entire Christ Our Light Anglican community. Yet Rudenborg acknowledged that that’s why it’s so hard to identify abusers: “We think people who do monstrous things must seem more like monsters.”