(RNS) — The Anglican Church in North America, formed in 2009 after splitting from the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, will soon begin a high-profile church trial against a beloved bishop who is accused of welcoming men with histories of predatory behavior into church leadership. One of those men, a former lay minister, has been sentenced to 21 years in prison for felony sexual assault.
Bishop Stewart Ruch, head of ACNA’s Upper Midwest Diocese, is also facing separate church charges brought by three other bishops. Meanwhile, the diocese’s churches have suffered through years of controversy and power struggles.
Given the number of accusations and crimes involved, the increasing awareness of abuse and ACNA’s relatively short existence as a denomination, some have asked whether ACNA or Ruch lacked infrastructure of accountability or safeguards against abuse. How, in other words, could things have gone so wrong?
“The short answer is, it could happen in any religious organization,” said Stephanie Krehbiel, executive director of Into Account, which supports people who have suffered abuse in Christian organizations. “It’s common as dirt.” She added that while abuse is often connected in the public mind with the Catholic Church or Southern Baptist Convention, socially and theologically conservative denominations have no monopoly on abuse problems.
The Episcopal Church, for instance, made headlines this month when over 55 bishops cited deep concerns about members of their ranks receiving “free passes” when accused of misconduct.
“Safeguarding children is an important responsibility of every congregation and diocese in the Anglican Church in North America,” Andrew Gross, spokesperson for ACNA, told Religion News Service in an email.
But according to Krehbiel, there are factors that make some denominations better equipped to address misconduct than others.
When bishops left the Episcopal Church to start ACNA, the split was followed by years of infighting and slow, grinding property lawsuits. Seeking to avoid the rigid, top-down governance many found stifling in the Episcopal Church, ACNA’s founders favored a nimbler, decentralized structure.
As a result, each ACNA diocese has its own governance rules and abuse protocols. “It’s such a hodgepodge,” said Marissa Burt, an ACNA layperson and clergy spouse in the Seattle area, about the denomination’s safeguarding policies. “So you really have to investigate the parish bylaws. You have to look at the diocesan canons and really ask what your parish is doing. What are their policies for children, what is their training?”
In 2021, the denomination published a sample child protection policy, based on the work of a committee, and formed a task force charged with creating a separate sample policy for responding to allegations against adults. The policies are recommendations, not mandates.
ACNA’s bylaws also outline how to report accusations against clergy, though the bar for doing so is high: Accusations against clergy must be delivered to the priest or deacon’s bishop, and accusations against bishops must be submitted to the archbishop, who heads the entire denomination, by either three bishops or 10 adult members, including at least two clergy and seven people who belong to that bishop’s diocese.
All allegations must be written, signed and sworn, contravening expert opinion that survivors should be able to make anonymous reports and be guaranteed confidentiality.