Internal dispute erupts within ACNA team reviewing the Upper Midwest safeguarding case

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The Anglican Church in North America’s review of the diocese of the Upper Midwest’s safeguarding practices and procedures in the wake of the Mark Rivera abuse case took an unexpected turn this week. Three members of the church’s Provincial Response Team (PRT) resigned citing displeasure and disagreements with the process.

On 14 January 2022 the PRT announced it had engaged Husch Blackwell LLP to complete the investigation. On the 17th three members of the PRT submitted their resignation stating “the entire process never felt survivor-centered. Instead, it seemed designed to think first and foremost about ACNA.” They stated the PRT’s mandate had been unclear, it had been slow to respond to the needs of the abused, and communications within the PRT and with the victims had been poor. The ACNA responded on 20 January 2022 that it disagreed with these “assertions”, but stated it would not debate these points in public as it “would not serve the survivors or the investigative process” at this stage of the proceedings.  

The investigation continues.

Letter of 17 January 2022.

Dear Provincial Response Team:

We, as ACNA-appointed members of the PRT, resign with heavy hearts today due to how the ACNA has mishandled this situation. It has downplayed or ignored the needs of survivors, particularly through its communication and delay.

To the survivors on the outside, and to the three of us as their advocates on the inside, the entire process never felt survivor-centered. Instead, it seemed designed to think first and foremost about ACNA, a familiar yet fatal flaw in trying to balance protecting the institution and creating a process for real accountability.

In our view, here is where things went wrong:

  • The ACNA failed to deliver promptly on promises of direct financial assistance, needlessly re-traumatizing victims.
  • The authority, scope, and decision-making processes for the PRT were unclear and became increasingly so. We have been functioning as two (or more) teams in many ways for some time, without clarity on who is in charge of making which decisions or who may have access to what information.
  • The PRT did a terrible job communicating authentically and clearly about process before and after the choice of a third-party law firm to handle the investigation. The three of us believe our eventual pick was a strong one, but it was completely undercut by the public statement which used language we knew would inflame and upset survivors. Some of that language was removed in front of two of us, then added back in, and published without notifying or discussing with us. That feels deceptive at worst, and dismissive at best. Further, we clearly expressed that the survivor letter should either be the public document or be attached to it: one voice, one communication. We believed this would be the case, yet the survivor letter was not included in the public release. And the consequences are exactly as we predicted.
  • Finally, we did not know until this weekend that letters abuse survivors, advocates, and concerned friends experiencing secondary trauma (all needing prompt survivor care!) were not forwarded or often, not even mentioned to us. This constitutes a breach of trust that is insurmountable. None of the letters sent addressed to the entire PRT, that are now being sent to us directly from people who had no response or one response and then no follow up, were ever shared with the three of us. Every single person who has written us directly believed that Gina and Autumn received their letter and just failed to respond, or didn’t care. This has been going on since September, and is inexcusable. No explanation of how or why this happened will fix this. We had no idea about any of these letters, only discovering them on our own when an unanswered one was made public. We met with the writer of that letter, and shortly following received multiple emails from survivors and others who did not realize we had not been seeing their correspondence.

We raised most of these concerns, together with our non-negotiables, in our communication on January 10. None of our non-negotiables were met. We hope that the public protests of the victims, amplified by our resignation, jars the Province into considering a truly trauma-informed and fully survivor-centered approach moving forward. We recommend that all ACNA staff, laity and clergy, including Bishops and the Archbishop, receive professional training in this approach immediately.

What might a fully trauma informed survivor centered approach look like in practice?

  • View every move through the lens of what is best for the survivors, not the institution. This requires the humility and courage to admit wrongdoing on the Province’s watch. Those who received insufficient responses from the PRT email account, for example, should receive direct apologies, and the Province should issue a public apology as well.
  • Communicate consistently, constantly, clearly, with trauma-informed language. Transparency and connection can ease suspicion, fear and deep misunderstandings. Remember, once people are victimized, they rightly lose faith and confidence. It is your job to help restore it, no matter how difficult or “risky” this might seem. Because we were not allowed to work closely with the communications team, and were never fully informed about separate Monday morning meeting decisions, the PRT failed to do this.
  • Listen to victim advocates. They tell you hard truths, often learned from walking with people who endured similar pain. Outside advocates should hold more power than the internal lawyers and PR/communications personnel who inevitably dominate the process.
  • Move fast. Every day of delay is another 24 hours of pain for the victims. They need resolution to begin the slow, seemingly impossible healing process. It should be your intention to deliver this with as much speed as possible. Delays make trust-building all but impossible.

Survivors of traumatic sexual abuse have been failed twice. The church failed them when the abuse happened and failed them again with its promises of justice and recompense. Imagine being sexually or physically abused. Then imagine people in power downplaying it, ignoring it, dismissing it. Then imagine people who have more power claiming to finally take it seriously only to reopen the wound, and douse it with salt. This is what happens when you refuse to employ trauma-informed communication methods even when explained, warned, and pleaded with by the PRT members who work with survivors.

The internal and external communication failures, which seemed predicated on the idea that there should be a separate public relations face versus survivor perspective constitute re- traumatization. This pattern must stop. Why is something so wrong so repeatable so reflexively? We, as people who tried to find common ground and justice, have come to the point where we need to remove ourselves, as we do not wish to enable more harm.

We hope that the ACNA will take the necessary steps to rebuild trust with survivors and all those affected by this situation, and we pray for the success of the investigation.

Respectfully,

Autumn, Gina, and Christen

ACNA letter of 20 January 2022.

Last Friday, January 14th, the Anglican Church in North America announced the engagement of Husch Blackwell LLP to complete the impartial, trauma-informed, and independent investigation of allegations of sexual misconduct and of the mishandling of such allegations in the Diocese of the Upper Midwest.  We look forward to Husch Blackwell’s investigation beginning soon.

Following the announcement of the third-party investigative firm, three members of the Provincial Response Team (PRT) resigned.  While we are deeply saddened and surprised by their resignation and public comments, we appreciated their involvement as members of the PRT, which led to achieving our mandate of hiring a firm to undertake this investigation. All three joined the rest of the members of the PRT in voting unanimously for Husch Blackwell, along with the majority of the alleged survivors who voted.

We disagree with assertions in their resignation letter and wish they had discussed those with us before stepping down, but it would not serve the survivors or the investigative process to debate them at this time.  We believe it is in the best interest of all for the Husch Blackwell investigation to proceed to its conclusion, and we remain committed to the care of survivors.

Please join us in praying for all involved.

The Provincial Response Team

Jeff Garrety

Alan Hawkins

Eric Menees

Rachel Thebeau

Albert Thompson