The Council of General Synod (CoGS) met for an hour and a half March 3 to discuss an open letter from someone claiming to have been the person whose sexual misconduct complaint resulted in the resignation last May of former National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald.
In the meeting, Archbishop Linda Nicholls, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, informed CoGS members she would not be able to answer questions on the contents of the letter itself, citing privacy concerns. CoGs members did agree to draft a response acknowledging the pain of the letter’s author and letting them know that CoGS held them up in prayer. Several members of CoGS registered concerns about how the church and its leadership have handled sexual misconduct and questions about the ongoing review thereof.
The letter does not include the name of its author. “I am what you call ‘the complainant’ in the ‘allegations’ of sexual misconduct against Mr. Mark MacDonald. That is not how I see myself. I am the victim of Mr. MacDonald’s ‘acknowledged sexual misconduct’,” it begins. It arrived in the email inboxes of CoGS members March 2 at 7:00 a.m. eastern time, two hours before the start of the current meeting of CoGS, which runs until March 5. Copied were Anglican Journal editor Tali Folkins as well as Michael Valpy, chair of the Journal’s editorial board.
It was sent by the Rev. Trevor Freeman, a B.C. priest, who wrote, “I share the attached letter with you on behalf of its author. My function is to affirm that this letter is genuine and to provide a safe channel for its distribution.”
Previously, the complainant in the MacDonald case had remained unidentified by the church and had not made any public comment on either the nature of MacDonald’s misconduct or the way the church handled it. But in this letter the person writes, “I never wanted to make any public statement about anything, but this has gone so badly for me, there are things I need the church to know.”
The letter’s author criticizes the process used by the church to handle their complaint—now in the midst of its first update since 2005—for the lack of agency and aid they say it gave them. Their listed concerns include lack of trauma counseling, not being consulted on the announcement of MacDonald’s resignation until a few hours before it was made public and, they say, being prevented from sharing or discussing the results of the investigation into MacDonald’s conduct.
During the CoGS session on the letter, Nicholls and Canon Clare Burns, vice chancellor of General Synod, stated in response to several questions from the floor that there was no confidentiality clause preventing a complainant who went through a sexual misconduct process from speaking about their experience once the process was complete.
Nicholls first responded to the letter after her opening address to CoGS, promising that the comments and concerns of its author would be considered in the currently ongoing review of the church’s sexual misconduct policy. At that time, the Rev. Marnie Peterson, of the ecclesiastical province of British Columbia and Yukon, requested time in the schedule to discuss the letter more fully. Nicholls replied that due to information she was not able to share for privacy reasons, she was unsure whether she would be able to reveal more. After more discussion, the primate said she would check with the council’s planning and agenda team to see if the schedule would permit discussion. By the following morning, it had been added to the day’s agenda.
When CoGS convened to discuss it, Nicholls asked whether the council would like to go in-camera for the discussion, given the sensitive nature of the subject matter and the potential to trigger discomfort for those present. She noted that the Anglican Journal would be present to report the discussion if they did not.
In response, Peterson stood again to say she felt it was important that the discussion be had publicly, citing discussion by CoGS at its March 2022 meeting of another open letter—this one by the group #ACCToo—which also involved allegations of mishandling a sexual misconduct complaint. At that meeting, the council discussed the letter behind closed doors for more than three hours, spread over several sessions.
“I think at this point we need to be open and honest and to ‘surface’ this with folks in the room who can report back that we are doing it,” Peterson said.
Nicholls said she saw signs of agreement from members of the room, and agreed to a public session.
During the discussion itself, Nicholls and Burns responded to questions from CoGS members about the current policies for handling sexual misconduct as well as the process of updating them. One particular area of difficulty, they said, was unifying policies across the church due to differences in local civil law and the national church’s lack of authority, according to current church law, to make decisions on behalf of ecclesiastical provinces and dioceses.
Other CoGS members came forward to discuss the emotional and moral weight of the letter-writer’s experience and what it meant for CoGS to faithfully receive it.
“We, as a council have received something from someone who was expressing such deep pain … because of the policy and the fragilities or flaws in it,” said the Rev. Eileen Scully, director of Faith, Worship and Ministry. (The church’s constitution allows General Synod staff at the director level to attend meetings of CoGS.) “We’re responsible for that policy. And that weighs. And so I just want to name that lament that I am feeling in my heart and I know others in this room are feeling,” said Scully.
Joey Royal, suffragan bishop of the diocese of the Arctic, added, “What we have here is a crisis of trust … The question is, ‘can you trust the church as an institution?’ And the answer that people are coming to in parts of the church, and culturally, is no.”
Some members of CoGS were more critical in their assessment of the issue’s handling, including Finn Keesmaat-Walsh, youth member of CoGS who said they did not feel the church’s leadership had shown they felt the appropriate urgency about the issue.
“The whole story hasn’t been told [but] this privacy thing is starting to sound like an excuse. And I know there’s lots you can’t say, but there has to be something you can say that communicates you get it,” they said.
In response to Keesmaat-Walsh’s statement, Nicholls replied that she wished she could say more. “I certainly feel the pain of the complainant, but that’s as much as can be said.”
“This is making me lose faith in the leadership,” said Keesmaat-Walsh. “That’s not something I ever wanted to do.”
Nicholls replied, “We are in a public space, with public media in the room. So that’s as much as can be said.”
After CoGS had agreed to respond to the letter-writer, Keesmaat-Walsh asked for the response to be issued by CoGS’s prolocutor and deputy prolocutor but not from Nicholls, given the circumstances, instead of by all three, as was first proposed. Nicholls agreed to this.
Near the end of the session, Nicholls spoke to the council about her experiences with previous sexual misconduct situations.
“They are always messy. I have yet to be involved in any of these where the victim or the perpetrator are satisfied. There are always angry letters afterwards from all sides saying ‘it didn’t give me what I wanted. It didn’t solve it. It didn’t heal it,’” she said. “So I just ask you to hold that pain that’s there for all of us, knowing none of us know the whole story.”
The session ended with a time of silence and a prayer by CoGS chaplain the Rev. Louise Peters. Peters led CoGS in praying for the healing of the author of the letter and guidance in preventing future pain.
Note: This story has been edited slightly slightly for clarity since it was first published.