Church of Canada Faces Sex Abuse Allegations

Images from the ACCtoo website

Updated with a note from Archbishop Nicholls correcting her previous statement.

By Kirk Petersen

A senior official of the Anglican Church of Canada allegedly failed to safeguard the confidentiality of “three survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by men ordained as clergy” in the ACC, according to an open letter posted on a new website, ACCtoo, on February 17.

In an interview with TLC, the co-authors of the website said they had chosen to air the allegations publicly after nearly a year of seeking accountability from church leadership.

The open letter says the survivors “hoped their stories would show how their allegations of sexual assault were mishandled by four Anglican Church of Canada institutions: three dioceses and one school.”

Archbishop and Primate Linda Nicholls issued a statement that apologized to the three women while taking issue with unspecified portions of the account on the website. “I remain available to meet with those harmed by our actions to personally acknowledge that apology as well as to clarify misrepresentations in the ‘open letter’. I hope they will contact me if they would find such a meeting helpful,” she wrote.

The open letter was written and posted by two doctoral candidates at the Toronto School of Theology, Michael Buttrey and Carolyn Mackie. Mackie told TLC that as part of their studies they had researched how churches and theological institutions respond to sexual violence. The letter solicits signatures, and attracted nearly 100 names in the first 24 hours online. The letter says it was reviewed and approved by the three survivors before it was posted.

Buttrey and Mackie declined to provide any further information about the nature of the alleged sexual violence, or to identify the senior official or the four church institutions accused of mishandling the information.

The open letter says the three survivors had spoken in confidence in February 2021 with a journalist at the Anglican Journal, a magazine and website published by the ACC. The journalist was asked to provide a draft of the article to an ACC official, and then asked to provide a list of the institutions allegedly involved.

“We believe that the AJ staff provided this list under duress, and only after being assured the draft would not be circulated to the four institutions involved. We understand that a high-ranking official of the ACC then chose to send the draft outside of the General Synod office to each of these four institutions,” the open letter says.

The draft was a work in progress, and included notes and email excerpts that were not intended for publication. One of the survivors was identified by name in the document, and the others were identifiable by the institutions despite the use of pseudonyms. The survivors learned of this and demanded that the institutions delete all copies of the document. When some refused, the journalist and the editor of the AJ resigned. They are not identified in the open letter, but AJ reported September 1 that editor Matthew Townsend and writer Joelle Kidd had resigned in June. No reason was given for the resignations, either then or subsequently.

2/23 Update:

ACCtoo has posted the following correction from Archbishop Nicholls:

“In my letter of response to the Open Letter I stated that the former editor and journalist did not participate in the review. They did participate with the investigator but did not meet with me. I apologize to them for the implication that they had not participated.”

Nicholls’s statement said: “In regard to the steps we took, a full review through an independent investigator revealed miscommunication and misunderstandings about journalistic practice that led to an inappropriate sharing of a draft of the article before it reached its final stage. The former editor and staff writer were invited to participate in the review, but did not.”

Townsend, who was news editor of TLC before he joined the Anglican Journal, disputed the archbishop’s account. “It is completely inaccurate to say that the writer and I did not participate in the review. I spent hours on the phone with the investigator and offered to provide whatever documentation would be of interest; the same is true of the writer,” Townsend said by email. “I read over the investigator’s transcripts and read the report. After receiving the investigator’s report, which I found mostly unsatisfactory, including misspellings of my own name, I was invited to participate in a one-on-one discussion with the primate regarding the report. This was not something I felt comfortable with, so I declined.”

Kidd told TLC by email, “I support the survivors and their efforts to hold the church accountable through this letter.” She declined further comment.

The archbishop’s statement is on the ACCtoo website, but as of this writing is not available on the ACC’s website. The ACCtoo website said it was publishing the statement at the archbishop’s request, and wrote: “The Primate’s response does not address our three calls to action, nor does it identify any misrepresentations in our open letter. If the leadership of General Synod believes there are any misrepresentations in the open letter, we would encourage them to name them, either privately or publicly, so that they can be corrected.”

The three calls to action appear at the end of the open letter:

  1. Release the unredacted findings of the investigation to a representative chosen by the survivors; and
  2. Require the resignation of the ACC church official who circulated a draft of the Anglican Journal article to four institutions outside the General Synod office; and
  3. Submit an apology for publication in the Anglican Journal that summarizes the investigation report, confesses wrongdoing, and presents a plan of action that is a worthy beginning of repentance.

“We’ve heard from multiple sources at General Synod that it is a toxic work environment,” Buttrey said. “The leadership is responsible for this.” In 2019, Nicholls became the second woman elected to lead a province of the Anglican Communion, after former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts-Schori of the Episcopal Church.

The ACCtoo website is conceptually similar to ACNAtoo, a website calling attention to mishandling of sexual abuse in the Anglican Church in North America. “We’re not working with them on our website, but I can admit we were inspired by the design and the approach that they take,” Buttrey said.

As TLC reported last July, the ACNAtoo website called attention to the handling of multiple rape and sexual assault allegations against Mark Rivera, a former ACNA lay pastor, who is free on bail with an ankle monitor and awaiting trial. The Rt. Rev. Stewart Ruch III, bishop of ACNA’s Diocese of the Upper Midwest, has been on a leave of absence since he acknowledged “regrettable errors” in responding to the allegations.

ACNAtoo has since published multiple detailed accounts of girls and women alleging sexual misconduct by other ACNA priests and lay leaders. Buttrey said additional survivors in the ACC have already begun to come forward.

ACNA hired two law firms to conduct parallel investigations into sexual abuse and abuse of ecclesiastical authority. Religion News Service reported February 17 that “at least five individuals who say they experienced sexual or spiritual abuse in the diocese say they will not participate in one or both of the investigations due to concerns about transparency.”

Previously, three of the eight people appointed to oversee the ACNA sexual abuse investigation resigned, saying the process “never felt survivor-centered.”

Mackie and Buttrey expressed similar concerns about their own church hierarchy. Mackie said that in the face of sexual abuse allegations, the ACC’s response “is always a self-protective stance. I think unless they actually repent, and they’re honest and transparent, and take responsibility, the church will not survive.”

The two are pursuing their doctorates at the Toronto School of Theology’s Regis College, which is a Jesuit school, but both say they are Anglicans and attend Anglican churches.

“We care about the church, and we want the Anglican Church to be a good, healthy, and safe place,” Buttrey said. “If we didn’t, we’d just leave, and encourage others to do so.”

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