(RNS) — In July 2021 Stewart Ruch III, bishop of the Anglican Church in North America’s Upper Midwest Diocese, went on leave after making what he called “regrettable errors” in handling cases of abuse in the diocese.
By that time, many who attended the roughly 30 churches in Ruch’s diocese knew that the missteps Ruch was referring to had to do with his delay in informing them of the accusations against Mark Rivera, a volunteer leader at Christ Our Light Anglican, an Upper Midwest Diocese church in Big Rock, Illinois.
Rivera had been arrested in 2019 and later charged with felony sexual assault and predatory abuse of a victim under 13 years of age. Since then at least 9 others have made allegations against Rivera, who had previously been at Church of the Resurrection, where Ruch served as rector and then as bishop.
Ruch waited nearly two years to tell anyone outside ACNA leadership about Rivera’s alleged abuse. As he confessed in his leave-taking letter, “My mistake accounts for the significant gap in time between Mark being accused of an offense and this communication to you.”
But the delay had already alienated some in the small denomination, which emerged from a 2009 split with the Episcopal Church over LGBT issues. Ruch’s handling of the allegations provoked not one but two parallel investigations — one into the accusations against Rivera and the diocese’s response and another into allegations that Ruch and other ACNA leaders had created a culture of submission and control at Church of the Resurrection.
When he went on leave, Ruch appeared contrite, telling church members in a July 2021 letter, “I want you to be able to trust me as your bishop and pastor. 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.”
But far from mollifying Ruch’s critics, the investigations have only stoked more distrust, with some survivors refusing to participate and three women appointed to advocate for the victims quitting a panel appointed to help manage the crisis due to a lack of transparency.
Of late Ruch himself has struck a less than penitent tone.
“Both my diocese and the ACNA got hit this summer by a vicious spiritual attack of the enemy,” Ruch wrote to the denomination’s top official, Archbishop Foley Beach, on Jan. 14. “I believe this is the case because both entities are doing robust Gospel work, and Satan hates us.”
“I have decided to come off of my voluntary and temporary leave of absence effective March 7, 2022,” Ruch announced to Beach. “I believe my calling as a bishop who is responsible for leading and pastoring my diocese requires me to return to my work of service, preaching and oversight.”
The ongoing investigative process, he further said, was neither “canonical or, more importantly, biblical.”
Nonetheless, he told Beach that he is “open to dialogue about the process of facilitating my return and addressing strategies for repairing the damage done to my reputation.”
Others are expressing solidarity with Ruch. In an accompanying letter, Alec Smith, who serves as Ruch’s advising chancellor, or church lawyer, argued that ACNA leadership had illegitimately expanded the scope of the investigations. That letter claimed the investigation had treated Ruch as if he had been “credibly accused of misconduct and was pending potential ecclesiastical discipline.”
“To put it bluntly, Bp. Stewart’s return to leadership is necessary to prevent the very real risk that a Provincial bureaucracy will run roughshod over the diocesan integrity that is core (to) Anglican polity,” he wrote.
Andrew Gross, spokesperson for ACNA, told RNS in an email that the Provincial investigative process “has been consistent with the Anglican Church in North America’s canons, committed to justice for everyone, and grounded in Biblical principles and compassion.”
The polity, or governance, of the church is part of what is in question in the investigations. Rejecting the Episcopal Church’s hierarchical structure, ACNA purposely decentralized its organization when it formed the new denomination, with each diocese deciding its own rules. The delay in reporting Rivera’s case that prompted Ruch’s timeout, some say, may have been avoided if firmer processes had been in place.
But others say that Ruch and other leaders have made the situation worse by defending the church instead of attending to Rivera’s alleged victims.
Helen Keuning resigned from the Upper Midwest Diocese’s Bishop’s Council last month in part because, she said, of the way diocesan and denominational leaders allegedly cast reported abuse survivors as their enemy. Then, this week, Keuning released Ruch’s and Smith’s letters to Beach in a series of reports published on the website of an anti-abuse advocacy group called ACNAtoo.
According to Keuning’s account, Bishop John Miller, the acting bishop in Ruch’s absence, called Ruch on behalf of the Bishop’s Council to ask him to remain on leave until after the independent investigations conclude, which drew an “irate” response from Ruch, according to Keuning’s account. In the run-up to Easter this month, Ruch put in a surprise appearance at Church of the Resurrection and was welcomed by cheers and applause.
Keuning, who declined an interview with RNS, added that she had personally heard members of the Bishop’s Council demonize the work of ACNAtoo by charging that the group was being used by Satan to destroy Ruch and challenge traditional views on marriage and female ordination.
“You should fast and pray before you read ACNAtoo because it is definitely Satan’s work in our diocese,” Keuning wrote in describing the conversations.
She added that several members of the Bishop’s Council rejoiced when they learned of an account from a separate group of Rivera survivors, known as BelieveUsToo, who released a statement challenging ACNAtoo’s advocacy and asking Ruch to be reinstated.
Keuning also revealed the contents of an April 28 email to her from Husch-Blackwell, the firm leading the sexual abuse investigation, saying that any information from sources who wish to remain anonymous to ACNA leadership can’t be used to discipline clergy.
Keuning’s whistleblowing accusations have been backed up by the Rev. Gina Roes, one of the women who resigned from the Provincial Response Team charged with overseeing the investigations. Roes published a post on ACNAtoo’s website this week describing how ACNA and diocesan leaders “scapegoated ACNAtoo and the survivors for whom they advocate.”
Roes and the other two former Provincial Response Team members, Autumn Hanna VandeHei and Christen Price, told RNS that they “discovered that there was a disturbing level of hostility toward ACNAtoo” on the Provincial Response Team.
Roes, VandeHei and Price believe ACNA leaders must demonstrate “humility, repentance, and a willingness to ask for, and listen to outside, experienced help.”
“The trope that the ACNA has been victimized by ACNAtoo, that ACNAtoo is Satan’s tool sent to attack the church must be rejected,” Roes, VandeHei and Price said.