(RNS) — Archbishop Foley Beach, the primate of the Anglican Church in North America, accused his denomination’s highest court of attempting to stop an investigation into an Illinois bishop’s alleged misconduct.
According to a statement Beach issued Wednesday (June 7), Bishop Stewart Ruch of the Upper Midwest Diocese made a “secret appeal” earlier this year to ACNA’s seven-member Provincial Tribunal to call off the investigation. After the tribunal issued a stay order, Beach and other denominational leaders questioned the impartiality of four tribunal members. He also asserted that the denomination’s bylaws don’t give the tribunal authority to issue a stay order.
This power struggle, which had been conducted behind closed doors for months, broke into the open Wednesday with Beach’s “Update on the Diocese of the Upper Midwest.”
“The Tribunal failed to give proper notice to me, the Presenting Bishops, or the Provincial Chancellors,” of Ruch’s request that the charges against him be dropped, Beach charged in his update. “We were not given a copy of what Bishop Ruch filed and we were not given opportunity to address the issue,” he wrote.
On Thursday afternoon, Ruch issued a letter acknowledging a “significant disagreement” between Beach and the tribunal over how to interpret the denomination’s bylaws. He added that the clash “may be unsettling,” and that he and diocesan leadership “are committed to answering those questions in the right time and place.”
“I am calling for a Diocese-wide fast for tomorrow, Friday, June 9,” Ruch added.
Beach’s update did not name the charges against Ruch, though a separate document he published Thursday suggests they were based in part on a September 2022 report by the investigative firm Husch Blackwell, which the Upper Midwest Diocese had hired to look into allegations swirling in at least two churches of sexual abuse. The investigators found that Ruch had been slow to act in response to abuse allegations.
Ruch has admitted making “regrettable errors” in how he handled allegations of sexual abuse by Mark Rivera, a lay minister in the diocese who has since been convicted of both felony sexual assault and felony child sexual assault. In July 2021, Ruch took a leave as bishop of the Upper Midwest Diocese, headquartered in Wheaton, Ill.
But a month after the Husch Blackwell report was released, and as a separate investigation into allegations of spiritual abuse by Ruch and other diocesan leaders was ongoing, Beach announced that Ruch had decided to return from his voluntary leave.
By that time, a denominational team appointed to review the investigation recommended that a presentment, or list of charges, be considered against Ruch. After three bishops signed the presentment as required by church codes, they officially delivered it to Beach in December. Beach then began selecting a 10-person Board of Inquiry to investigate the charges and decide whether to put Ruch to trial, per the denomination’s bylaws.
But in February, he caught wind of Ruch’s plea to the court and received the subsequent stay order. In March, Beach filed formal objections to their actions and charged that they had overstepped their powers.
This week, the tribunal replied, claiming that the tribunal is “the highest adjudicatory body of the Province” and is “the final interpreter of the meaning of the Constitution and Canons.”
This prompted Beach to go public on Wednesday.
Given the dispute over procedure, it’s not clear what happens next. Beach and a denominational spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
On Thursday, Religion News Service obtained another presentment against Ruch, the result of a grassroots effort led by members of Minnesota churches in the Upper Midwest Diocese. It levels two new charges against Ruch: violation of ordination vows and “conduct giving just cause for scandal or offense, including the abuse of ecclesiastical power.”
This presentment cites seven cases in which Ruch either failed to prioritize victims in the wake of abuse allegations or knowingly welcomed individuals with histories of predatory behavior into diocesan churches without alerting church members.
It accuses Ruch of knowingly ordaining a former pastor who had previously admitted to sexual addiction and had been fired by his church after serving jail time for attempting to solicit a prostitute. According to the presentment, Ruch installed the man as rector of a church in his diocese in 2021 without informing parishioners of this history.
The document also alleges that in fall 2022, Ruch allowed Nephtali Matta, a former minister who was convicted of a felony in 2011 for domestic abuse of his now ex-wife, to become a pastoral resident (a role for future church planters) at Church of the Resurrection, headquarters of the Upper Midwest Diocese where Ruch serves as rector.
“(H)is pattern and practice of knowingly welcoming and elevating individuals who could prey on his congregations has continued beyond the events of 2019 that compelled the ACNA Province to initiate third-party investigations,” the new presentment says. “By preventing the accountability that would result from communal knowledge, he has transformed what should be, of all spaces, a sanctuary for the most vulnerable into a target for predation.”
The second presentment is currently circulating via email and requires the signatures of two clergy (at least one from the bishop’s diocese) and eight lay members (at least six of whom must be from the diocese) before it can be delivered to Beach. As of Friday, no priest from the diocese has been willing to sign onto the new presentment.
Some current and former ACNA members who blame Ruch for mishandling the abuse condemned his attempt to calm the situation, answering his call for a day of fasting with a storm of tweets.
Friday morning, Cherin Marie, whose daughter was the first survivor to come forward with abuse allegations against a lay minister in Ruch’s diocese in 2019 at the age of nine, shared on Twitter that today is her daughter’s 14th birthday. She listed a litany of church leaders and former community leaders she holds responsible for her daughter feeling uncomfortable in church.
“Most importantly though it was you, Bp. Stewart Ruch, and your blatant refusal to admit, apologize for, and be accountable for your mistakes that has left my daughter never wanting to trust church leadership again,” wrote Cherin, who asked to go by her first and middle name to protect her family’s privacy. “So as you all gather to fast and pray on her birthday, I am reminding you of this little girl. She is still watching and waiting…”