Letter from resigned Provincial Response Team member outlining concerns with ACNA’s abuse response protocols

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My Fellow ACNA Clergy,

I write to you as someone who has taken ordination vows, just as you have. I ask for your prayerful consideration to listen, in the coming days, to accounts of our denomination’s response to abuse survivors: namely, that both the Upper Midwest Diocese (UMD) and Provincial leadership have prioritized their power over truth-telling, accountability, and healing. You should know that neither I nor my associates Autumn and Christen are a part of ACNAtoo, nor did ACNAtoo ask me to write this. I write it to offer context to illuminate information that is forthcoming. I am releasing it to ACNAtoo for them to post on their site so that as many of the clergy as possible can have access to this information. I humbly ask you to pass it on.

When sexual abuse was first reported to church leaders in 2019, as the UMD and then the Province stepped in to address the alleged mishandling of abuse, the survivors were supposed to be the focus. Their needs, as the wounded, were supposed to be paramount. And they were wounded on our watch, in our denomination, by people who fall under our umbrella. Unfortunately, as forthcoming disclosures will show, the UMD and the Province have each shifted their focus in the past months to institutional self-preservation and image management.

Like you, I took a vow: that I will “interpret to the Church the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world” and it is my “office to encourage and equip the household of God to care for the stranger, to embrace the poor and helpless, and to seek them out, so they may be relieved” (BCP, 2019, p. 478). I vowed that I would be a bridge between the Church and the needs of the world. I was ordained last June and was contacted shortly afterward to see if I would be willing to serve on the PRT to address the possible mishandling of sexual abuse allegations in the Diocese of the Upper Midwest. I have walked with traumatized people in a professional capacity for 25 years. I was energized by the idea that I could serve my denomination to pioneer our approach to abuse and misconduct so that we could create a solid standard of care, making us a shining light for the hurting. I was eager to be the bridge.

Autumn VandeHei (a Victim Advocate for 25 years), Christen Price (an attorney who litigates sexual abuse/trafficking cases), and I (a Professional Counselor specializing in trauma for 25 years) were selected by the Province to be the “trauma-informed experts” who would help to guide the process toward healing for survivors as the Province sought to gather information and select an investigative firm. We were tasked with ensuring that survivors were cared for and not re-traumatized. 

Despite this assignment, it soon became clear that the dynamics of the PRT made it impossible for us to perform this task, not least of all because, unbeknownst to us at the time, those who sent emails to the PRT address were responded to by provincial communication staff and Autumn and I were never alerted about any of them. When we were permitted to respond to survivors (the few who cc’d us directly), our responses were usually heavily monitored and edited by the ACNA employees on the team until those responses were rendered sterile and vague, further eroding any trust these and other survivors had in the process, and in us personally as their advocates. Meanwhile, survivors whose communications we were unaware of received little to no response from the PRT at all.

After months of being stymied in our assigned roles, as we outlined here, Autumn, Christen, and I resigned from the PRT, but not from our advocacy work. We were standing with the survivors, trying to find the other side of the chasm to connect their needs to the healing Body of Christ. But after our resignation we were met with hostility and power plays from those who also made vows to be a bridge, but instead actively engaged in sabotaging us.

I recognize that I am using very strong language, and I would not use it without cause. I am deeply grieved. To be honest, there is so much that I can’t “unsee,” and for me to take no action would make me complicit in what has happened. My conscience will not allow me to be silent, and so I bring this to you, my fellow clergy.

Continuing to fulfill my promise to advocate, I offer you my account of where we find ourselves, then a brief timeline of events that helps explain how we got here. These will also help set the stage for forthcoming in-depth posts from others. 

As of this writing, the ACNAtoo survivors (specifically) have, for good reasons, all but given up on the idea of a truly independent investigation into the allegations of mishandling of abuse in the UMD. As you will see in forthcoming posts on the ACNAtoo website, the Province’s refusal to authorize standard parameters and practices has made it impossible for survivors to safely participate in either of the two concurrent investigations, which in turn makes it impossible for the investigations to include much of the crucial information needed for meaningful accountability or change.

Those of us who have worked on this crisis from within the PRT see that a 3-front conflict has developed, which began with Mark Rivera’s alleged criminal activity and the fallout from it, but now involves the UMD, the Provincial Office, and ACNAtoo. The dynamics between the UMD and the Province are not collegial, and within this intra-denominational conflict, both have triangulated and scapegoated ACNAtoo and the survivors for whom they advocate. I hope what I share below, and the forthcoming disclosures will make this clear.

  • In May 2019, Mark Rivera is accused of child sexual abuse, and, after over two years of survivors feeling as though the church leaders they repeatedly petitioned for help did not hear them or take them seriously, they start to address the issues publicly. As this happens, others come forward publicly and privately and begin to shine a light on other troubling dynamics within the UMD and the ACNA.
  • ACNAtoo begins to organize in July 2021. It is important to note that ACNAtoo exists BECAUSE of unhealthy dynamics within the UMD. Survivors and advocates were trying to be heard for many months and when they were not, they spoke out publicly about their urgent concerns. As you will see, in pleading for justice, they were perceived as a threat to be defeated.
  • Because of a lack of transparency in the diocesan process, along with a lack of clear communication with survivors, several survivors go public in late June and early July, prompting the Province to become involved in the investigation.
  • Enter the Provincial Response Team (PRT), seated on August 28, 2021. Autumn, Christen, and I are invited onto the team to serve in our professional capacities. Along with Albert Thompson (who sits on the ACNA Executive Committee), we make up the half of the PRT not employed by the ACNA. (We will be releasing more information about our experience shortly. When we do, please note the parallels to the dynamics in the UMD with the accounts being posted on ACNAtoo this week. These include controlling communication structures, paying lip service to survivors and not following through on promises, and sidelining both survivors and professionals brought on to help while using them to boost the credibility of both organizations.) 
  • On August 29, 2021, the Province announces that the ACNA Executive Committee has approved the UMD Bishop Council’s request for an expanded scope of inquiry into the situation. This will eventually result in an additional, concurrent “abuse of power” investigation into the UMD, beyond the scope of the investigation specifically into the alleged mishandling of the Mark Rivera case. 
  • On January 17, 2022, after months of failed attempts to resolve various issues directly with other members of the team, the three of us resign from the PRT. In the preceding days, we began receiving direct emails from survivors and witnesses whose letters to the PRT were never shown to us. After our resignation, our inboxes continue to fill up with people reaching out to share their stories concerning both the UMD and the Province. Dozens who have been directly and indirectly traumatized by the Mark Rivera case, amid the growing tension between Provincial and UMD leadership, have felt unheard and dismissed after contacting the official PRT email address over the previous 6 months to seek help and guidance.
  • Attempting to go through the proper channels to address the (at this point) multiple issues with the PRT, Autumn, Christen, and I meet with Bp. John Guernsey, the Dean of Provincial Affairs, on February 11, 2022. Acting as the advocates we were enlisted to be, we specifically ask him to address the issues brought to us by the various survivors. I am recounting part of this conversation for the sole purpose of demonstrating that the proper channels were completely ineffective. Our meeting with Bp. Guernsey includes the following:
    • After we tell him that the counseling support that was promised to survivors in November has not yet materialized, he tells us that the greatest lesson he has learned in this experience is that it is imperative to be vague with survivors. If you make specific promises that you can’t keep, then they just get angry. This, of course, contradicts best practices and the dozens of requests by survivors for transparency. This is the opposite of pastoral care for the wounded.
    • In response to the other concerns laid out in our resignation letter, he tells us that we have deeply wounded the remaining PRT members with our resignation. He desires to seek some type of factual accounting, and following that, reconciliation. He asks us to surrender our evidence (all of it) to a “neutral party” that he has selected so that this person can then speak with the PRT to discern what really happened. While this was to go on, we would be expected to be silent. We do not commit to this. We recognize reconciliation is severely hampered by the structure he has outlined, and it casts us as the offending party and the remaining PRT as the victims. We offer to provide evidence of any factual claims in our resignation letter that other PRT members disputed, but we are never told which of our claims were contested.
    • The meeting ends without any resolution.
    • We approached this meeting to explain, from our professional experience, what had gone wrong and how things might be rectified. We were met instead with pressure to reconcile with the rest of the PRT and assuage hurt feelings. We disagree that this was the best next step because the concerns about the investigation needed to be addressed urgently.
  • On February 23, 2022, a group of survivors (known as BelieveUsToo), who do not identify with ACNAtoo and who desire their own voice, send the College of Bishops a letter titled “Statement to the Archbishop and the College of Bishops from Survivors of Mark Rivera.” Autumn, Christen, and I stand with and support ALL the survivors of Mark Rivera, and we honor that these survivors want to be identified apart from ACNAtoo. Their experience is different, and we recognize and respect that.
  • On March 6, Autumn, Christen, and I send a letter to the College of Bishops and Archbishop Beach (again, attempting the appropriate channels) in which we outline the PRT’s mishandling of the UMD investigation and offer to provide additional documented evidence to back up our claims. No one reaches out to ask questions or directly address any of our points. Our only responses are from Bp. Guernsey and Archbishop Beach, asking us again to turn over our evidence to the remaining PRT members.
  • On March 11, we write a second letter to the Bishops and Archbishop containing the 29-page evidence document we offered up in the first letter. As of today, we have received no response from anyone.
  • The BelieveUsToo survivors publish their letter publicly on March 12. 
  • On March 31, a UMD Bishop’s Council member, whom we have never met, contacts us to share her experiences on the Council and the reasons for her recent resignation. In comparing our relative experiences with the UMD and the Province, we recognize startlingly similar disturbing patterns playing out within the two different levels of the church hierarchy. 
  • With the two investigations ongoing, ACNAtoo advocates and others begin reaching out to the respective investigative firms, Husch-Blackwell and Telios, to submit testimonies or ask about the reporting process. In doing so they quickly discover that each firm is following abnormal and highly concerning procedures, as dictated by their respective contracts with the Province – contracts no one (including the three of us) outside of ACNA provincial leadership has been allowed to see. (We have confirmed with multiple attorneys that the investigations’ confidentiality protections are substandard and unusual.)
  • ACNAtoo survivors have been clear since the beginning that only an independent, transparent, and survivor-safe investigation would allow the ACNA to bring the truth into the light. Bp. Alan Hawkins engaged in multiple conversations with Rachael Denhollander, Esq. (an expert survivor advocate and attorney) throughout the early months of 2022. Although she is available and eminently qualified to independently review the investigative contracts and liaise with survivors, the Province has not hired her. To date, the problematic investigations continue with no expert oversight. Many survivors are refusing to participate given the confidentiality concerns, a reality that will significantly skew the outcome of the investigation.

From the beginning, this was supposed to be about helping the wounded. The survivors’ healing and the integrity of the Church were to be the priority. As members of this Body, we must reflect on what has been brought into the light and ask ourselves if this is the kind of church we want to be.

Regardless of the investigations’ outcomes, the survivors’ goal is for YOU to hear them. What they have to say is not a threat to our church or its leaders, and neither is it something the church can suppress or deny. Abuse happens in our churches. We cannot look at the SBC, the Roman Catholic church, or any other church and say, “Lord, we thank you that we are not like those churches.” I am imploring you to listen to these survivors. We can’t ever let this happen again.

As it stands, our structures inhibit justice and healing for wounded people, our official channels for accountability are broken, and those who have failed in their duty of care seem to be perpetually in a defensive stance, protected by their position of power and those in their circle of influence. It is noteworthy that five professionally credentialed women, all volunteers, have resigned citing strikingly similar concerns. This should alarm you. I am asking you to prayerfully discern for yourself, as upcoming accounts are released, what is God’s heart for all the survivors (different survivors need different things), and what is your part in making this right. 

Please read the posts as they come out. Please discuss this with each other, do your research, and ask hard questions. Please prayerfully join me in being the bridge.

Autumn, Christen, and I can be reached at ACG4Survivors@gmail.com.

With heaviness and hope,

Rev. Gina Roes