Third-party report details ACNA leaders’ inaction on sexual abuse allegations
(RNS) — A long-awaited third-party report on sexual abuse reveals that leaders in an Anglican Church in North America diocese failed to act on tips about sexual misconduct and abuse and defended an alleged abuser as innocent while questioning reported survivors’ credibility.
The probe into events in the Upper Midwest Diocese, conducted by the investigative firm Husch Blackwell, also found that an ACNA priest did not report abuse by a lay pastor to the Department of Child and Family Services, claiming a church lawyer told him he was exempt from mandatory reporting laws, and that Bishop Stewart Ruch III and others allowed a church volunteer to have contact with teenagers after he had lost his teaching job for inappropriate behavior with students.
As serious as the report’s findings are, the investigation went forward without hearing from at least five alleged survivors of abuse who refused to participate over concerns about transparency.
The Upper Midwest Diocese in the ACNA — a small denomination formed by a 2009 split with the Episcopal Church over its LGBTQ-affirming policies — has been roiled since 2019 by allegations that Mark Rivera, a former lay pastor in the diocese known for his charisma and physical affection, had sexually abused young people he had met through Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, Illinois, and Christ Our Light Anglican Church in Big Rock, Illinois.
At least 10 individuals have made sexual abuse or sexual misconduct allegations against Rivera, who is now on trial in Kane County, Illinois, on charges of felony sexual assault and predatory abuse of a victim under 13 years of age.
Ruch is on leave after admitting he made serious mistakes in handling the abuse allegations against Rivera, including failing to initially tell members of the Upper Midwest Diocese about those allegations.
ACNA spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment.
Four years earlier, in 2015, several leaders became aware that a lay leader at Christ Our Light Anglican, Chris Lapeyre, had been fired from a high school teaching position that year over concerns about a relationship with a female student, according to the report.
The Rev. Rand York, a priest at the church, told investigators he knew that Lapeyre had lost his job and why but allowed Lapeyre to stay in leadership, saying that he “was not concerned about Lapeyre interacting with young people at COLA because Lapeyre had three daughters of his own.”
Ruch, bishop of the diocese, reportedly told investigators that he also knew that Lapeyre had been fired over a “boundary crossing” issue but took no action. Lapeyre said his termination didn’t limit his leadership opportunities at either Christ Our Light Anglican or Church of the Resurrection, the diocesan headquarters in Wheaton.
The report states that Lapeyre, a friend of Rivera’s, said he was aware of sexual misconduct by Rivera involving an adult woman in 2018 but did not tell anyone about it until 2020.
The report goes on to say that Ruch and York did not attempt to learn more about additional abuse allegations against Rivera made known to them in 2019, and Ruch did not consider reaching out to parents of at-risk teens who might have been vulnerable to abuse by Rivera.
Released online late Tuesday evening (Sept. 27), the report follows a monthslong investigation that was contentious from the start due to the objections from some of Rivera’s accusers.
“I have no reason to believe that anything about this investigation is independent,” said Cherin Marie when the investigation was announced in January. Cherin Marie, whose then-9-year-old daughter reported being sexually abused by Rivera in May 2019, has asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy.
Joanna Rudenborg, who says she was abused by Rivera, too, tweeted on Sept. 17 about her skepticism toward the anticipated report: “(T)he investigation has never been about justice or healing for survivors. It has been first and foremost about doing damage control.”
Survivors and advocates affiliated with ACNAtoo, an anti-abuse advocacy group, have publicly criticized the report on social media for including explicit details about a minor’s sexual abuse without the child’s consent.
“The minor is one of multiple survivors of Mark Rivera’s sexual assault that chose not to participate in the investigation because it was obvious that the investigation was not safe,” Abbi Nye, an ACNAtoo advocate, tweeted on Thursday night. “They were right.”
Members of ACNAtoo say that while many of them reached out to ACNA leaders days ago asking them to redact the minor’s details, the report remains online, unedited.
“The account of the young girl’s abuse in the report is all hearsay, from two leaders who are implicated in mishandling her abuse,” Nye told RNS.
Investigators were asked to gather information about how ACNA leaders handled abuse allegations — but were barred from recommending charges or punishments.
“We were charged with gathering evidence regarding such issues and reporting the information collected, but we were explicitly directed not to render any legal determinations, evaluate or opine about any governance structure issues, or seek to address whether any discipline is warranted,” the firm wrote in its report.
In a Sept. 7 update from ACNA, the denomination said a Provincial Investigative Team of lay and clergy people will review the report as well as findings from a parallel investigation assessing abuse of church power in the diocese. The Provincial Investigative Team will be charged with making recommendations in the wake of the reports.
The Rev. Gina Roes and Christen Price, an ordained deacon and attorney, respectively, told Religion News Service that the report is difficult to evaluate, given the severe limitations of its scope. Both women resigned in January from the Provincial Response Team originally charged with overseeing the investigations, claiming its process “never felt survivor-centered.”
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“It sort of defeats the purpose of having an investigation if there are no conclusions that can be made from the report,” said Roes, pointing to the report’s lack of analysis. “It leaves it in the hands of the ACNA and the diocese to interpret and characterize those facts.”
When asked about next steps, Roes and Price said denominational leaders who were excluded from the report due to its diocesan scope should be investigated. “There needs to be an investigation of the province,” said Price, referring to ACNA.
In interviews with Husch Blackwell, Ruch admitted the diocese lacked protocols for responding to sexual misconduct allegations and left the matter largely for law enforcement to pursue.
But the report identifies another obstacle to reporting abuse: In notes and emails, church officials repeatedly expressed their belief in Rivera’s innocence.
“While I believe this entire accusation to be spurious (something has happened to this girl, but Mark is not the culprit), I fear however that this will spell the end of Christ Our Light,” York reportedly wrote in a May 20, 2019, email. “I believe Mark to be innocent. I would be stunned to find anything untoward with regard to his actions,” he wrote in another email days later.
Charles Philbrick, the church lawyer who reportedly advised York he wasn’t obligated to report the allegations, told Husch Blackwell he found the child’s allegations “hard to believe.” (The report says York was investigated by DCFS for failing to report, but nothing seems to have come from the investigation.) Philbrick said he gave Rivera a referral to a defense attorney, but only, he told investigators, out of his ethical obligation as an attorney, not in his capacity as chancellor, or church legal officer.
BelieveUsToo, a group that represents alleged Rivera survivors, declined to comment on this story.
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