The leaders of a California evangelical megachurch are under fire for bungling the church’s response to a youth ministry volunteer’s confession that he was attracted to minors.
The Menlo Church volunteer in question first told Senior Pastor John Ortberg about his feelings two years ago, though congregants weren’t officially notified about the situation until January. That the volunteer was the pastor’s younger son, John “Johnny” Ortberg III, was kept secret until a whistleblower leaked the news late last month.
The younger Ortberg denies acting inappropriately towards children and to date, no one has come forward with allegations claiming otherwise. But the revelation of his identity has heightened scrutiny of the church’s response and raised questions about whether John Ortberg ― who allowed his son to continue volunteering with children for over a year after hearing about the disordered attractions ― should remain the church’s senior pastor.
The church’s board acknowledged this week that its handling of the matter has caused “pain and distrust” in the community, and pledged to do better.
As of Tuesday, John Ortberg remained Menlo Church’s senior pastor.
Current and former members of Menlo Church told HuffPost they are upset by how the board ― and John Ortberg in particular ― handled the situation, claiming that leaders prioritized maintaining Ortberg’s reputation over building a culture that is safe for children and welcoming to any survivors of sexual abuse. Some members have also been upset over how the board’s chairwoman attempted to discredit the whistleblower, Daniel Lavery, a trans writer and Ortberg’s estranged son, who has broken from his family’s conservative evangelical faith.
Tiger Bachler, an Atherton resident who attended Menlo Church for over 20 years, told HuffPost that by keeping his son’s attraction to minors a secret for months, John Ortberg and his wife demonstrated that their priorities were skewed.
“It was more important to them to protect their reputation rather than think about the risk to the kids of the church,” said Bachler, who stopped attending services regularly about five years ago but still considers Menlo to be her home church.
Bachler said she doesn’t understand how the church can continue having Ortberg as its senior pastor.
“Given his responsibility as a pastor, the children of the church are the most vulnerable part of his flock and he did not stand up for them,” Bachler said. “He did not protect them.”
A Secret Confession
Johnny Ortberg, who is in his early 30s, first told his father about his attraction to children in July 2018. He assured his father that he had never acted on that attraction, and the pastor believed him.
The pastor failed to report his son’s confession to the top governing body at Menlo Church, a church located in an affluent Bay Area neighborhood, that draws about 6,000 weekly attendees across six campuses.
The confession remained secret for over a year, during which John Ortberg did not take steps to prevent his son from volunteering with children at Menlo Church or local student Ultimate Frisbee teams.
Clergy are mandated reporters in California, but they have an exemption from this rule if they hear about potential child abuse during a “penitential communication.” The church’s top leaders have said that the volunteer came to John Ortberg “in confidence.”
Lavery has said his brother opened up to him in November 2019 about experiencing pedophilic attractions for years, admitting that he’d tried to treat this condition by seeking out volunteer opportunities with children, which sometimes included overnight travel. Lavery claims that his father encouraged this work, citing alleged family texts from August 2019 in which John Ortberg appeared to congratulate his son for work with a local youth sports team.
A spokesperson working with the Ortberg family told HuffPost that Johnny Ortberg has “never acted inappropriately and has never been tempted to act inappropriately.” Johnny Ortberg did not seek out volunteer opportunities with children as a way to manage his condition and his parents never encouraged him to do so, the spokesperson said, adding that John Ortberg provided his son with referrals to clinical experts and Johnny Ortberg “has met regularly” with one of them.
John Ortberg told HuffPost through the spokesperson that, after learning about his son’s attractions, the pastor “conferred with clinical experts and other pastors about this situation.” John Ortberg still “believes he followed the correct course of action in protecting the confidentiality of his son from the authorities, given he never considered his son to be a risk to himself or others.” Nevertheless, he is “unreservedly sorry for not having immediately asked the church elders for counsel,” the spokesperson added.
Marci Hamilton, CEO of the child abuse prevention think tank Child USA, told HuffPost that she believes John Ortberg’s response to the confession was “woefully deficient.” She said Johnny Ortberg’s confession to his father appears to have been a “cry for help.”
“I would assume that he was struggling and was hoping that others would be able to set up some guardrails for him,” Hamilton said. “That did not happen nearly quickly enough, if at all.”
A Quiet Investigation
Concerned about John Ortberg’s silence and his brother’s unsupervised access to children for years, Lavery told Menlo Church leaders about the situation in November.
The church is governed by a board comprised of nine elected elders, as well as its senior pastor. After Lavery’s report, the board quickly removed Johnny Ortberg from volunteer opportunities and placed John Ortberg on personal leave. Congregants weren’t given an official explanation for the pastor’s absence at the time. The board said it also informed the church’s denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.
The board enlisted Fred W. Alvarez, an employment lawyer, to conduct an investigation into the pastor’s actions. According to Alvarez’s professional biography, he has experience “defending employers in trial” and “conducting sensitive internal investigations.” It does not list any experience investigating institutions dealing with sexual abuse crises.
Alvarez’s investigation had several flaws: Johnny Ortberg’s identity was kept a secret from some of the supervising staff who were interviewed, meaning Alvarez did not ask all interviewees specifically about Johnny Ortberg’s behavior, according to information first obtained by Religion News Service and confirmed to HuffPost by a Menlo Church spokeswoman.
Alvarez’s investigation also did not include interviews with some key individuals, including Johnny Ortberg himself. Alvarez didn’t speak to parents whose children had contact with the younger Ortberg or to any of his fellow volunteers.
Alvarez did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Hamilton said she found it “rather shocking” that the investigator failed to interview Johnny Ortberg and parents whose children had been with the volunteer. She also found it surprising that Johnny Ortberg wasn’t identified by name to the congregation and his sports team.
Adults sexually attracted to children often operate in ways that are under the radar, Hamilton said, which means the interview process needed to be expanded. The investigator needed to learn if Johnny Ortberg was allowed to be alone with children, if he engaged in grooming behavior, and if his computer was searched for child sex abuse images and direct contact with children. Investigators also need to examine the extent to which children at the church are taught to “obey” adults, which could contribute to kids’ hesitation to report abuse, Hamilton said.
“The ‘investigation’ fell so far below the minimum efforts needed to ensure children haven’t been abused that I wouldn’t call it an investigation,” Hamilton wrote in an email.
Menlo Church didn’t inform its membership about the investigation until January, when it was already over. The church announced in an email, without disclosing Johnny Ortberg’s identity, that “a person serving in the Menlo Church community came to John [Ortberg] and shared in confidence an unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors.” An “independent investigator” hadn’t uncovered any misconduct or allegations of misconduct, the email said, without providing any information about Alvarez, but the board determined that John Ortberg had “exhibited poor judgement” in allowing the volunteer to continue working with Menlo Church’s youth. The senior pastor was placed in a “restoration” program designed by the elder board meant to rebuild trust.
From the congregation’s point of view, it seemed as if John Ortberg had merely been careless, several church members told HuffPost.
Livienna Lie, a 20-year-old middle school ministry volunteer who has attended Menlo Church for 11 years, told HuffPost that when she first heard about the matter in January, she assumed the investigation was thorough and that the staff interviewed knew the volunteer’s identity. She thought it was possible that John Ortberg didn’t know the volunteer personally, so she was initially “very on board to forgive” the pastor, she said.
It seemed like “he just made a mistake and he’s apologizing,” she said.
Bachler said she also took the January email at “face value.”
“Every communication made it seem like he’s made this one mistake,” Bachler said. “But every day for 16 months, he woke up and made the decision that he was not going to let the church know that his son was continuing to volunteer and was attracted to kids.”
A little over a week after the board’s January email, Lavery published his first public statement about the matter, disclosing that the volunteer had also confessed to him but not revealing the volunteer’s identity. Lavery, a columnist for Slate, helped shine a spotlight on the fact that there was more going on behind the scenes at Menlo Church.
“I have no firsthand knowledge of any criminal activity, and I have real compassion for anyone trying to treat sexual compulsions with accountability and oversight,” Lavery wrote in the Feb. 2 statement. “But the situation they had created was risky, unsafe, and unsustainable.”
Asked to respond to Lavery’s comments during a congregational town hall, Beth Seabolt, the chair of Menlo Church’s board, claimed that Lavery’s post was likely motivated by a need to “lash out” at his parents.
Meanwhile, John Ortberg completed the board’s restoration plan and returned to the pulpit on March 7. He told parishioners in his first sermon back that he had held 80 one-on-one or small group meetings with elders, staff, volunteers, parents and congregants. During these meetings, he would ask people how his “actions or decisions or mistakes” had created problems for them.
“These conversations have actually been very freeing for me, and I actually got this wonderful gift of being able to see blind spots and areas where I need to grow and discovering how I could love people better and become a tiny bit more like Jesus,” the pastor said, according to a transcript of the sermon.
John Ortberg preaches his first sermon after returning to the pulpit in March.
But frustration among some parishioners was growing.
On the day that Ortberg returned, Ruth Hutchins, who has attended Menlo Church for over 10 years, published a letter to the editor on a local news site demanding that Menlo Church apologize for its “lack of transparency.”
“What do you call John’s actions, if not ‘misconduct’? How could the investigator have ruled out harm to children in such a short time frame and without speaking to parents?” Hutchins asked in the letter.
Kelly Morehead, a member who regularly attended services for roughly two decades but no longer considers Menlo her “home church,” told HuffPost that the board’s efforts this spring seemed as if leaders were just trying to cover themselves legally.
As a recent volunteer and the parent of two boys who were once involved in the church’s youth programs, Morehead said she was surprised that the investigator hadn’t spoken to her. While emphasizing that she had no reason to suspect Johnny Ortberg had done anything wrong, she said that she was most concerned with John Ortberg’s inaction after hearing his son’s confession. She was also upset that when the elder board learned of the pastor’s silence, “their response was not one of utmost concern for children.”
“That should have been the goal. Instead, the goal, to me and to many, felt like, ‘Oh gosh, we need to protect the pastor and the brand and be able to defend ourselves from any legal investigation,’” said Morehead. “I was just horrified that the church seemed to think that what they had done was sufficient and we should move on.”
Unsatisfied with the scope and depth of the investigation, Daniel Lavery publicly identified Johnny Ortberg on Twitter on June 28. Lavery called for his brother’s volunteer work with children to be “thoroughly scrutinized.”
Lie, the volunteer who has been attending Menlo Church for most of her life, said she was devastated to learn that Johnny Ortberg was the person at the center of the investigation. Though she said she understands a little bit more why the pastor might have decided to stay silent, she believes it was the wrong decision.
As someone who worked with middle school students at the church and was at one point a student herself, “the feeling of knowing that John was putting his son over the students … kind of hurt more than it did originally,” she said.
Facing criticism from congregants, the board admitted publicly on Sunday that the previous investigation “could have gone further,” announcing that it would be conducting a “supplemental independent investigation” into concerns raised about Johnny Ortberg that will be overseen by a new committee of elders, staff, parents and volunteers. The church also pledged to hire an “independent outside organization” to audit its child safety policies.
“Fundamentally, we did not provide the transparency that our community deserves and as a result have eroded the trust some of you place in our leadership,” the board said in its statement.
Seabolt, the board’s chair, also apologized publicly to Lavery for claiming that he was lashing out, which she admitted was “discrediting and obviously very hurtful.”
Grace Lavery, Daniel Lavery’s wife, told HuffPost that the couple believes these steps are inadequate, since John Ortberg and Seabolt still hold their original positions.
“Their presence and position is a material disincentive to anyone who might want to come forward with reports of misconduct,” she said. “We think the need for a real investigation is absolutely unquestionable and we also think we already know enough at this point to know that we need to get a fresh broom.”
Both Johnny Ortberg and Menlo Church declined to provide HuffPost with details of the extent of his volunteer work with children. Menlo Church also declined to provide specifics about who will be leading the second investigation and audit, and whether John Ortberg will continue as senior pastor while these new reviews are taking place.
“We’ll announce further details to the congregation regarding the supplemental investigation and audit as soon as we have them,” a spokeswoman told HuffPost on Monday.
The church and its senior pastor appear to be confident that the “restoration” process John Ortberg went through was enough.
“I have sought forgiveness from God, from our church Elders, our staff, and from our congregation,” John Ortberg said in his statement last week. “I am thankful for the restoration process the Elders put in place for me, which while difficult, has enabled me to grow and seek forgiveness.”
John Ortberg’s actions in this case are notable when compared to his decision to speak up about instances of potential misconduct at his former church, Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Months before Johnny Ortberg’s confession in 2018, John Ortberg and his wife Nancy Ortberg were instrumental in pushing for a “fair and thorough” independent investigation into allegations of misconduct by Bill Hybels, Willow Creek’s former pastor. Hybels ― and Willow Creek’s entire board ― eventually resigned.
Bachler, the Atherton resident, said she believes the steps the board recently announced are a positive sign. But she doesn’t see how the board could continue to put their faith in John Ortberg.
“Their loyalty and friendship with him is blinding them from doing the right thing,” she said. “We can forgive him and we can have compassion for him, but he doesn’t need to stay in that leadership position.”
Lie said that her frustration is less with the board, which she believes was doing the best job it could in difficult circumstances, and more about John Ortberg’s inaction for those 16 months. She said she’s still processing her feelings about what the pastor didn’t do and although she loves being part of Menlo Church’s community, she said she feels that something needs to change.
“In my heart, I want to be forgiving. But at this moment in time, I don’t feel very good about [John Ortberg] coming back as senior pastor,” Lie said. “Just because of how that trust has been broken and I’m not seeing how that can be built back up. ... Maybe restoration just takes more time.”
CLARIFICATION: This story has been edited to better reflect how long Kelly Morehead attended Menlo Church.