Home » ‘The First Thing I Did Was Text My Priest’ a Church Lay Leader Sexually Abused a Child. The Victim’s Family Says the Institution Protected Him.
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‘The First Thing I Did Was Text My Priest’ a Church Lay Leader Sexually Abused a Child. The Victim’s Family Says the Institution Protected Him.

For years, Cherin Marie’s life near Big Rock, Illinois, revolved around her family and her faith. She and her husband were raising their young children in the Christ Our Light Anglican Church, a tiny but active congregation within the Diocese of the Upper Midwest of the Anglican Church in North America. Her weeks revolved around service, volunteering, and life alongside fellow parishioners. Her world came undone in 2019, when her then-9-year-old daughter told her that Mark Rivera, a prominent lay leader in the church, had sexually abused her. Cherin Marie says that when her family came forward about the sexual abuse, their congregation spurned them and diocesan leaders initially sided with Rivera.

This past March, Judge John Barsanti sentenced Rivera to 15 years in prison after finding him guilty of two counts of predatory sexual assault of a victim under 13 years old and three counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of a victim under 13. But Cherin Marie’s daughter wasn’t Rivera’s only victim: His former neighbor, Joanna Rudenborg, had accused him of raping her in 2018 and again in 2020. Then in April, Rivera pleaded guilty to one count of felony criminal sexual assault, and Barsanti sentenced him to an additional six years behind bars. Including Rudenborg, around a dozen women have identified themselves as victims of Rivera. Their claims range from rape to sexual harassment, though Rivera has only been tried for crimes against Rudenborg and Cherin Marie’s daughter. (Cherin Marie asked for her last name to be withheld to protect her daughter’s privacy.)

Cherin Marie and her family have received the highest form of justice that the secular courts can offer, and Rivera will be behind bars for the foreseeable future. Survivors and their families hope that Rivera’s legal reckoning may spur another, not just within the denomination he once served but the Anglican Church of North America as a whole. Christ Our Light stopped meeting in person during the pandemic and ultimately gave up its lease. But the authorities who oversaw Rivera’s time as a lay leader mostly remain in the ACNA. Cherin Marie, and other victims and advocates who belong to a grassroots organization called ACNAtoo, say the ACNA mishandled the response to the allegations of sexual abuse and further harmed Rivera’s victims: The priest of Christ Our Light didn’t report the allegations to authorities, and the bishop of the diocese didn’t disclose them to parishioners for two years. Now ACNAtoo is demanding transparency and accountability from leaders of the diocese as well as leaders of the ACNA for the sake of Rivera’s victims — and for anyone else who might come forward about abuse in the future.

ACNAtoo’s critics say that the church has been unfairly scapegoated for Rivera’s crimes, that Rivera was a lone bad actor who has been duly punished. Besides, Rivera was not a paid church employee, so what responsibility do the bishops and priests who oversaw his work bear toward his victims? Since Me Too, churches and denominations around the country have confronted similar quandaries. From within the Catholic Church and Protestant bodies like the Southern Baptist Convention, survivors of sexual assault and harassment have called for justice from the very institutions whose culture and bureaucracy enabled their abuse. Now the call has come to the ACNA. The way it responds may determine its future.

The Anglican Church in North America was born out of division. Founded in 2009 by traditionalists who split from the U.S. Episcopal Church over its support for marriage equality, the denomination remains small, reporting around 125,000 members in 2022. The Episcopal Church, by contrast, says it has over 1.5 million members in the U.S. alone. In the ACNA, same-sex marriage is not permitted, and women can’t become bishops, though some dioceses have ordained them to the priesthood and the diaconate. “I would characterize it as very conservative with a traditional Christian view of sex being only allowable in the context of a marriage between a man and a woman,” a former member said of the Church of the Resurrection, the megachurch at the heart of the Diocese of the Upper Midwest.

Mark Rivera, married with young children, fit well within this culture. Though he was never ordained as a minister, he volunteered at Christ Our Light and the nearby Church of the Resurrection, or Rez, as it’s known to members. As one alleged victim described matters on the ACNAtoo website, Rivera “regularly preached sermons, led entire church services,” at Christ Our Light, “organized church events, oversaw the running of every service, assigned serving positions, led prayers, served communion, and many other things.”

In May 2019, Cherin Marie’s 9-year-old daughter told her that Rivera had been sexually abusing her. “The first thing I did, after telling my husband, was to text my priest, Father Rand York, to tell him there was an emergency situation we wanted to discuss with him as soon as possible,” she said in a written statement provided to New York. York was not just the priest; he was her great-uncle and officiated at her wedding.

A subsequent meeting with York, Rivera, and Christopher Lapeyre, another lay volunteer, went badly for Cherin Marie. “I was asked by Christopher Lapeyre to disclose, in front of Mark, everything that my daughter had alleged,” she says. “After all of this, Christopher told me that the diocesan lawyer, Charlie Philbrick, had advised him and Father Rand that they did not need to report my daughter’s abuse to the authorities. Christopher then looked at me pointedly and said, ‘And it sounds like you don’t need to either.’” (When the church later hired law firm Husch Blackwell to independently investigate the church’s actions, Philbrick told investigators that he found the child’s allegations “hard to believe.”) Cherin Marie, meanwhile, said she felt pressure from all sides. “My best friend even told me that I should wait and not report Mark. She said that she believed if Bishop Stewart Ruch could personally confront Mark and ask him about this, Mark would surely tell the truth,” she said. Ruch was the highest-ranking church official associated with the diocese. Nevertheless, she said she went to the police two days after speaking with York.

The news ricocheted across the small community in Big Rock, where it divided the church and swept in one nearby outsider. York wasn’t just Cherin Marie’s great-uncle; he was also Joanna Rudenborg’s godfather, and her next-door neighbors were Rivera and his family. Though she didn’t attend Christ Our Light or indeed any other church, Rudenborg lived alongside church members, gardening and going to bonfires. To the greater community, Rivera had vigorously maintained his innocence. “The whole thing had kind of evolved into people operating under the assumption that he was falsely accused and now his family is suffering for it,” Rudenborg said.

Despite secular legal victories, the fight for accountability from the church does not come without costs. Rudenborg, in particular, has been the subject of vitriol with an anonymous group called BelieveUsToo saying she is unfit for the advocacy role she’s embraced because she is an outsider who has been critical of the ACNA and because she allowed Rivera to use her apartment. (A representative of BelieveUsToo declined to speak on the record.) One member of the clergy also told me he experienced professional consequences over his brief involvement with ACNAtoo.

In 2022, the Reverend Robert Sturdy was being considered for bishop when he wrote an article for ACNAtoo’s website calling for a theology that demonstrates empathy and care for survivors of abuse. “It was a pretty generic article, not really taking sides,” he said. “I think the only side I did take is I think I said something to the effect of if the bishop did what he has already apologized for or already owned up to, that’s pretty serious.” Sturdy also signed an ACNAToo open letter calling for an independent investigation into the church’s handling of abuse. Suddenly, he said, two other bishops had accused him of interfering in the affairs of another diocese, and had organized enough support to refuse to certify the results of the election, should Sturdy win. (A spokesperson for the ACNA said this petition was calling for specific actions that would have violated church procedure, and it was concerning to others in the church “that a bishop-candidate would sign a petition advocating the Archbishop commit such violations.”)

Then he heard that Bishop Alan Hawkins wanted to speak with him. Hawkins served on the Diocese of the Upper Midwest’s Provincial Response Team, which assembled after the diocese announced an investigative process, and, on a phone call, told Sturdy that he had to be “read in” to the situation as a prominent leader in the province. “In that phone call, he shared details about Joanna, and he wanted me to know she was not a Christian, that she had been drinking, and that she let Mark Rivera use her apartment to groom another young woman who I don’t know,” he said. “Alan wanted me to know all that, and he told me that if I supported the ACNAToo people, I was hurting the other victims, and I needed to stop supporting them if I didn’t want to hurt people.” The two then began an email chain. “I think the two big ideas I was trying to pass on to him were people who have been traumatized don’t behave in a predictable way,” Sturdy explained. When some people in the denomination “hear ‘trauma-informed,’ they think ‘woke.’ So they just dismiss it right away,” he added. Sturdy felt that church officials “really wanted folks to know Joanna was not a Christian.” The ACNA spokesperson says Hawkins called Sturdy at the request of others who claimed to be victims of Rivera to let him know they did not share the views of ACNAtoo or feel represented by it.

Sturdy isn’t the only person to report misgivings about the Provincial Response Team and its approach to the crisis. In January 2022, three members of the team resigned. In a resignation letter published on the ACNAtoo website, the former members outlined serious misgivings about the team. The ACNA did not “deliver promptly on promises of direct financial assistance, needlessly re-traumatizing victims,” they wrote. The team’s actual authority remained unclear, as did the scope of its work, and it communicated with survivors poorly about its choice of a third-party investigative law firm. Finally, the former members of the team said that “letters abuse survivors, advocates, and concerned friends experiencing secondary trauma” had not been “forwarded or often, not even mentioned to us.”

“Survivors of traumatic sexual abuse have been failed twice,” they added. “The church failed them when the abuse happened and failed them again with its promises of justice and recompense.” Then Ruch took a leave, punting the issue. He returned to his post last fall but now faces two sets of canonical charges, or presentments, as the ACNA’s internal divisions break out into the open. On June 7, ACNA Archbishop Foley Beach issued a statement which accused the denomination’s highest court of stymieing an official investigation into Ruch. In the letter, Beach said that a provincial investigative team recommended that a presentment be “considered” against Ruch. Though Beach did not describe the charges in his letter, Religion News Service has reported that they appear to stem from the Husch Blackwell report, according to another document Beach published the day after his letter. Beach has said that four members of the church tribunal appear to have conflicts of interest, and that the tribunal did not notify him, the ACNA’s presenting bishops, and its provincial chancellors that Ruch had asked the court to dismiss all charges against him.

After Beach published his letter, Ruch declared a day of fasting and prayer on June 9 — which happened to be the same day as Cherin Marie’s daughter’s 14th birthday. That presentment is still under consideration by a provincial tribunal, but Ruch’s troubles are growing. On August 15, the ACNA announced that he would face a church court trial over a second presentment, which was filed by priests and lay members mostly from the Diocese of the Upper Midwest. They have accused Ruch of violating his ordination vows and abusing his ecclesiastical power.

In a June statement, ACNAtoo said that the people who suffer most from this “Battle of the Bishops” are survivors themselves. “This is a turning point for the denomination: can there be meaningful accountability for leaders accused of mishandling abuse, waging covert warfare against survivors, and committing gross negligence of their pastoral duties?” members asked. “Or will personal influence, infighting, partisanship, and cronyism gain the spotlight?”

How the church navigates this turning point is crucial — to survivors and to its own future. Sturdy, who spoke to me before the ACNA’s most recent power struggles entered the spotlight, hopes for a moment of biblical healing. “I would like to say that if there are victims of abuse in the church who feel forgotten and hurt, there was a day when Jesus felt forgotten and hurt also,” he said. “The promise of Easter is that God saw that and raised Jesus up.” That is what he tells people who have been harmed.