(RNS) — A controversial and popular bishop in the Anglican Church of North America has decided to return from a voluntary leave of absence by the end of October, despite an ongoing investigation into spiritual abuse allegations.
“I am writing to inform you that Bishop Stewart Ruch has decided to come off his voluntary leave of absence and he has chosen to return to the diocese in his capacity as Bishop of the Diocese of the Upper Midwest on October 30, 2022,” Archbishop Foley Beach said in a letter to ACNA members on Friday (Oct. 21).
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Ruch stepped away from leadership in July of 2021, after admitting he had made “regrettable errors” in responding to allegations of sexual abuse by a lay minister in the diocese.
He and other leaders failed to act quickly on allegations against lay minister Mark Rivera, who is currently facing trial for felony child sexual abuse, according to a third-party review released in September.
That report from investigative firm Husch Blackwell found that church leaders defended Rivera and questioned the motives of abuse survivors — and also allowed a different volunteer, who’d been fired as a teacher for inappropriate behavior with one of his students, to continue in leadership.
The third-party investigators were barred from recommending any punishment for Ruch and other leaders. Ruch faces a separate denominational investigation into allegations he abused his authority as a church leader.
Beach also announced that in light of the Husch Blackwell report, Bishop Martyn Minns had been assigned as “supervisory bishop” for the diocese.
“Bishop Minns will assist with the implementation of appropriate structural, canonical, pastoral, and disciplinary corrections,” an ACNA spokesman said in an email.
An ACNA Provincial Investigative Team will also “make recommendations of next steps to the appropriate ecclesiastical bodies” in response to the Husch Blackwell report and an ongoing investigation into alleged spiritual abuse.
In a statement to members of his diocese, Ruch said that he looked forward to learning from Bishop Minns.
“Over the last few days, Archbishop Foley Beach and I have consulted regarding our Diocese, and as a result of those discussions I will be returning from my voluntary leave of absence,” Ruch wrote. “He suggested areas for growth and improvement. To that end, the Archbishop has assigned, for six months, a senior bishop, the Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, to supervise pastorally the diocese and me in this season. I welcome Bishop Minns into our diocese, and I greatly look forward to learning from him.”
The Anglican Church in North America was formed by clergy and churches who split away from the Episcopal Church, mainly due to disputes over sexuality and over the control of church property. When ACNA was founded in 2009, church leaders wrote new rules giving bishops and churches a great deal of autonomy and limiting the power of denominational leaders over bishops.
The denomination had no power to prevent Ruch from returning from leave. And despite his title as supervisory bishop, Minns will have no canonical authority over Ruch or the diocese.
Ruch had tried to return earlier in March of 2022 but was dissuaded from doing so. At the time, he claimed to be the victim of an attack of the devil.
“Both my diocese and the ACNA got hit this summer by a vicious spiritual attack of the enemy,” Ruch wrote in a January 2022 letter to Beach. “I believe this is the case because both entities are doing robust Gospel work, and Satan hates us.”
Ruch took a more conciliatory tone in announcing his return, saying he was heartbroken by the suffering of abuse survivors.
“I am vividly aware of the victims who have suffered deeply and may never know a full sense of closure,” he said. “I pray, by the redeeming ministry of Jesus, that might be otherwise. May those who suffer know him who has suffered for us.”
Ruch said the past 16 months had taken “a great toll on our clergy and the people of God.”
“As we begin this time of renewal and restoration, I want to start with an apology for any stress or pain that the past year and a half has caused,” he said. “Let us move forward together in reconciliation and charity in the days ahead as we seek to serve the Lord to reach the lost and the least.”
Church of the Resurrection, a prominent church in the diocese where Ruch once served as pastor, welcomed his return, saying the bishop, his family and church members have suffered in his absence.
“Our Diocese has been without our spiritual leader for the sixteen months of the investigative process,” the church said in a statement. “That sacrifice has left a mark on Bishop Stewart, Katherine, their family, and all of us. And yet, we trust that the Lord intends to use this entire experience for his glory and for the building up of his Church. In Jesus, we look forward in hope towards days of healing, restoration, and renewed mission as our bishop returns.”
RELATED: Third-party report details ACNA leaders’ inaction on sexual abuse allegations