Headquarters of the ACNA Diocese of the Upper Midwest
By Kirk Petersen
For the third time in a little more than a year, a bishop of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) has left office for an offense related to sexuality. This time, the episode is flaring into national consciousness through media reports and Twitter threads, amid allegations that church officials kept quiet for years about accusations of sexual abuse involving a 9-year-old girl.
The Rt. Rev. Stewart Ruch III, Bishop of the Diocese of the Upper Midwest, requested and was granted a leave of absence on July 8 after acknowledging “regrettable errors” in responding to alleged sexual offenses by a volunteer lay leader at a small Anglican church in Illinois. Archbishop Foley Beach announced the leave of absence on July 10.
“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,” Ruch said in a letter to the diocese. The diocese has hired an independent company, California-based Grand River Solutions, to reach out to other possible victims and make recommendations on improving the diocese’s practices.
The allegations have led to an open letter signed by more than 30 female priests in the ACNA, expressing support for survivors of abuse, and pledging to support ACNA in its “continuing hard work of developing clear processes to respond to all allegations of abuse with urgency, compassion, accountability, and transparency.”
Two other ACNA bishops have previously left office in the wake of sexual misconduct charges. In October 2020, the Rt. Rev. James “Jim” Hobby resigned abruptly as Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh after he allegedly failed “to act with urgency, transparency, and timeliness when an accusation of sexual misconduct by a member of the clergy was brought to his attention.” In June 2020, the ACNA College of Bishops voted to depose, or revoke the holy orders, of the Rt. Rev. Ronald W. Jackson, the recently retired Bishop of the Diocese of the Great Lakes, because of “sexual immorality” and “the use of pornography over many years.”
The episode in the Diocese of the Upper Midwest, which comprises 27 churches in Illinois, Wisconsin, and five other nearby states, began in May 2019 in Big Rock, Illinois, 50 miles west of Chicago. In a May 4, 2021 letter to the diocese, Bishop Ruch said a volunteer catechist, or lay religious teacher, two years earlier was accused of “a sexual offense against a minor,” later revealed to be a 9-year-old girl. Mark Rivera immediately was removed from his lay leadership position at Christ Our Light Anglican (COLA), a now-closed congregation of “half a dozen families and some individuals,” and was arrested in June 2019, the letter said.
Rivera was charged with felony sexual assault and predatory abuse of a child under 13 years of age. He is “currently out on bond awaiting trial, set to begin on Oct. 21, 2021,” according to a Religion News Service article republished in the Washington Post.
There have been other allegations against Rivera of sexual abuse, including by a woman whose ferocious Twitter campaign apparently led to Ruch’s abrupt leave of absence.
“My neighbor Mark Rivera raped me twice, pressured me to keep this secret, and repeatedly propositioned me to have an affair,” according to a long thread of tweets June 29 by a woman whose Twitter handle is Jessica Laurel, or @ladyjessicahaze. She was identified in the RNS article as Joanna Rudenborg.
“Mark hid in plain sight for years, grooming girls, women, and the entire community to accept physical boundary violations no other male adult could have gotten away with,” Rudenborg wrote, in a tweet that contained multiple photographs of Rivera in physical contact with young women or girls, whose faces were obscured. She said Rivera was a volunteer lay leader for 20 years at Christ Our Light Anglican and at the “parent” church that started COLA, Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, the see church and city for the Diocese of the Upper Midwest. One of Rivera’s previous roles was as a youth leader, where he “mentored many church youth in his home,” she said. Ruch was rector at Church of the Resurrection from 1999 until he became a bishop in 2013, and would have known Rivera in that capacity. Rudenborg has said she will not cooperate with the Grand River Solutions investigation. “Investigations are inherently skewed when the entity being investigated is the one paying the investigator,” she tweeted.
In the past week, Rudenborg and allies have launched ACNAtoo.org, “a grassroots movement in support of survivors of abuse by ACNA leaders.” On July 7, @ACNAtoo published what it said was a guest thread from the mother of the 9-year-old victim. The mother, identified only as CM, posted dozens of tweets and email screen shots outlining her efforts since 2019 to get the church and the diocese to respond to her daughter’s allegation of sexual abuse.
RNS reported that the Twitter campaign “gained traction online” after the Rev. Esau McCaulley, an author and theologian at Wheaton College, tweeted about it. McCaulley is an assistant professor, the author of Reading While Black, and a long-time contributor to Covenant, TLC‘s weblog of theological commentary.
Bishop Ruch acknowledged that he waited far too long to take action publicly. “When the original allegation came out against Mark in 2019, I mistakenly assumed that the necessary criminal investigation was a sufficient next step,” Ruch said in his letter to the diocese. “I thought it best to let the county district attorney’s office lead a thorough investigation resulting in a clear ruling. I anticipated that after this process we would inform the diocese of the court’s ruling. I naively expected the trial to occur much sooner than it has.” Ruch continued, “I now understand that when an accusation of this gravity occurs, and when an arrest is made, a safe opportunity for other possible victims to come forward must be created.”