The Scandal of Pastor John Ortberg and Menlo Church

The Scandal of Pastor John Ortberg and Menlo Church July 2, 2020

All right, here goes: let’s talk about what’s going on with the Ortbergs and Menlo Church, an evangelical megachurch in Menlo Park, California. Over the past decade, I’ve written a lot about sexual abuse in evangelical churches and about the factors that create a perfect storm of coverup and neglect. This one, though? This one brings all of the things I’ve written about together in one awful, raging, Category 5 nightmare hurricane.

What happened, exactly? On June 28th, Daniel Laverly, son of influential megachurch pastor John Ortberg, posted a lengthy thread on twitter going public with some serious and shocking concerns. Daniel’s thread included a description of the whole affair, so I’ll quote from it here:

In November of last year, I reported to the Elders of Menlo Church that their senior pastor, John Ortberg, had conspired in secret to provide a person experiencing compulsive sexual feelings towards children with unsupervised access to young people through youth groups.

Let me just pause here to point readers to an article I wrote some time ago.  In it, I respond to an article in a well-read evangelical magazine that contended that child protection measures have no place in evangelical churches. The author argued that measures designed to protect children from sexual abuse get in the way of hugging children as Jesus did.

There has been a lot of opposition in evangelical circles to putting child protection measures in place in churches. So much opposition, in fact, that Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, felt the need to create an entire organization—Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment—to convince churches and other evangelical groups that they should create protections for children.

Why can’t these churches take responsible steps in the first place? For one thing, there’s a belief that Christians are de facto safe people. Sexual abuse is something that happens somewhere else. It’s what ungodly, worldly people do! Add to that a firm belief in hierarchy—children’s voices are automatically discounted, and (white, male) Christian adults are automatically believed. Add to that a belief in forgiveness for sin that frequently puts “repentant” abusers back in positions of power.

Okay, back to Daniel’s thread! What happened after Daniel reported to the elders at Menlo Church that John Ortberg—Daniel’s father, and the senior pastor—had “conspired in secret to provide a person experiencing compulsive sexual feelings towards children with unsupervised access” to children in the church’s youth groups? Good question! Let’s have a look.

At that time, it was my hope that the Menlo Elders would conduct a confidential and thorough investigation of the report, and make such arrangements as were necessary to protect the community. In January, Menlo Church published the broad outlines of their investigation.

In my opinion, it was not a thorough one. The investigator did not, for example, interview a number of the key witnesses, nor do I believe did they investigate church-related work on international trips. Although Ortberg returned to the pulpit acknowledging vague regret, neither he nor the church ever made clear what, exactly, they thought he had done wrong. Parishioners were not given the full story of Ortberg’s relationship to this volunteer, or his interest in keeping their strategy a secret.

Around that time, I published a statement expressing dismay at Menlo’s institutional failures. At a town hall meeting, Beth Seabolt responded to my comments by smearing me, claiming that I was “lashing out” at my family and insinuating I was mentally unstable because I am trans.

Ah. Well. Here we come to another issue.

Or really, two issues.

Evangelical elders and pastors and parishioners are very, very good at automatically dismissing concerns raised by young adults who grew up in the church. Very very good.

Partly it’s that old hierarchy issue coming up again—if you parrot everything your evangelical parents and elders want to hear, you’re seen as some sort of wonderkind, but if you have your own thoughts or opinions, you’re dismissed as too young to speak. Partly the problem is narratives around “bitterness” and “rebellion.” Young adults who leave the church are dismissed as troublemakers whose perspective is skewed by their bitterness and anger.

The irony is that many of us aren’t really “young adults” at all. We’re in our 30s, and sometimes older. But our parents—and our pastors and elders—can’t seem to accept that. To them, we will always be children.

There are times when I have tried to caution my parents about this or that with regards to my younger siblings—usually things related to child protection—only to find myself dismissed because I have left the faith. This is so pervasive and so fundamentally painful that I usually don’t even try. I know I won’t be listened to. I know I am no longer considered worth listening to. Only Christians are worth listening to. And not just that—only good Christians. Only Christians who say what they already want to hear. They don’t listen to people not on their good list—and I am most definitively not.

It hurts to know that you will be de facto dismissed. It is painful to be treated as though your voice is not worth hearing.

While this is not in play in my own dismissal, there is another factor too: young adults who merely make “lifestyle choices” their elders disagree with, such as being queer, often find themselves dismissed for that reason as well.

Daniel is a trans man who transitioned in 2018. He also co-founded the Toast, a connection I didn’t make until halfway through figuring out what was going on here. Regardless, everything in evangelical culture conditions evangelical leaders and parishioners alike to dismiss voices like Daniel’s. And that indeed is what happened.

The truly tragic thing about all of this is that it is precisely the voices of the disaffected that church elders should want to hear. And yet those who were harmed in the church are often those who are most quickly dismissed when they raise concerns, as though their traumatic experiences in the church render their perspectives invalid rather than relevant. (I do not know Daniel’s specific experiences in the church; this is a general comment.)

Too many elders and church leaders would rather dismiss concerns of those who grew up in the church and had negative experiences than consider whether maybe, just maybe, there are changes they should make to ensure that future children growing up in the church are spared such traumatic experiences.

There’s another irony here, too. I grew up in an evangelical community where the adults around me visibly shuddered when transgender identities or people came up, and then turned around and defended confessed pedophiles within the church. I watched this happen with my own eyes. Many evangelicals appear to be more horrified by trans people than they are by men in their congregations who take advantage of and sexually abuse children.

This is utterly outrageous, and should get far more press than it does.

Ah. But. Let’s return to Daniel’s description of the situation. Remember, the Menlo Church elders conducted a lackluster investigation and then allowed John Ortberg to return to the pulpit expressing only vague regret over some nebulous wrongdoing, without ever acknowledging what actually happened. In February, Daniel published a statement calling attention to what he saw as ongoing failures; in response, he was attacked and his reputation smeared, because being trans, in this community, renders one’s perspectives and opinions invalid.

Remember, Daniel Laverly is John Ortberg’s son. He is in a position to have a very close view of what is going on with his father and with the situation, and he ought to be listened to. But no! He is trans, and he is a troublemaker, and he is young, so he is not worth listening to. He is a troubled soul!

Before I go back to Daniel’s outline of the situation, I’m going to pause to quote from his February statement so that readers know what it was that he was trying to blow the whistle on. Just what was it that John Ortberg had done or failed to do? What was it that Daniel reported to the elders in November, that resulted in a lackluster investigation and John Ortberg’s subsequent vague apology and reinstatement to leadership?

On November 15, 2019 a member of the congregation at Menlo Church disclosed to me that for most of their life, they had experienced obsessive sexual feelings about young children. This person further disclosed that they had sought out unsupervised volunteer positions with children as a method of treating this obsession, including volunteer work at Menlo Church as well as volunteer work that involves overnight travel with minors. Lastly, this person disclosed that although they had never spoken to a therapist about this plan, they had shared it with John and Nancy Ortberg in July 2018. John Ortberg has continually encouraged this person in their pursuit of unsupervised work with children.

If you are absolutely gobsmacked, you should be. Someone who has obsessive sexual feelings toward young children should not have unsupervised access to young children, and certainly should not seek such access. To go beyond that and say that giving such a person should be given unsupervised access to young children as a means of treating their obsessive sexual feelings toward young children is simply beyond the pale.

In thanks for his statement, Daniel was smeared, decried, and ignored. There was more concern about his “airing of dirty laundry” than there was over John Ortberg’s giving a person with confessed obsessive sexual feelings toward young children unsupervised access to young children. The problem was not what had happened; it was that it was made public. By Daniel. Who obviously could not be trusted. Because he is trans.

I cannot emphasize enough that this is a deep, systemic problem, not an individual situation of wrongdoing. Evangelical Christianity is primed to ignore and condemn whistleblowers and protect those in power.

So. Back to Daniel’s outline of the situation:

I had hoped that Menlo would conduct a robust, thorough inquiry, coordinating with other organizations this volunteer has worked with, and that the volunteer might receive safe and responsible treatment.

Given the brevity of their investigation, I no longer trust that inquiry process. So I’m now publishing the letter I sent to staff at Menlo in November, redacting only details that might identify children.

I make this public in the absence of institutional accountability, so that members of the community can create a democratic, transparent process for investigating this volunteer’s history of unsupervised visits to, trips with, and work involving children.

The volunteer was my brother, John Ortberg III. When we last spoke, he admitted to seeking out unsupervised contact with children (including overnight travel) for well over a decade.

I believe his unique relationship to my father, John Ortberg Jr., is the sole reason why John Jr. went out of his way to protect his secret and facilitate his continued contact with children.

It was only on June 28th, in this lengthy twitter description of the situation, that Daniel made public, for the first time, the identity of the “volunteer” whose access to children John Ortberg facilitated.

Daniel continued as follows:

During the conversation where he admitted his sexual obsession towards children, John III repeatedly described his work with children as the most important thing in his life, and described his feelings for the children in his care over the years in deeply romantic terms.

“The instinct to nurture children,” he told me, “is for me bound up with a sexual response to them.” My understanding of that phrase was that he indicated physical arousal.

That is … not good. That is not good at all.

I do not wish to punish John Ortberg III for a condition he cannot control. However, he can control whether he spends time alone with children he desires sexually.

He colluded in a desperately unsafe conspiracy on the grounds of a discredited belief—seemingly derived from the “Virtuous Pedophile” movement, whose values both he and my father defended to me—that close, unmonitored contact with children is therapeutic for pedophiles.

No no no no no, not good at all.

When my parents learned I intended to inform the church staff in November, they sent my wife a message through a third party that my brother was suicidal at the thought of being unable to volunteer with children.

Rather than seeking medical attention for him, they wanted me to promise not to say anything, and to imply that I would be responsible for his suicide in the event that I reported. I did not then, and I will not now, accept that responsibility.

I hope that my brother is safe, healthy, in treatment, and never alone with another child. I hope that his previous work with children, at Menlo Church and everywhere else he pursued such work, is thoroughly scrutinized.

Daniel finishes by sharing screenshots of the email he sent to church staff in November. These screenshots make clear that Daniel was transparent with the Menlo Church elders from the moment his brother divulged these things to him. I am extremely impressed by the path Daniel has walked since those disclosures.

This is not an individual, one-time scandal. The factors that allowed this to happen—and be covered up—are present in evangelical churches across the country—particularly megachurches that rely on a cult of personality. Respect for authority and hierarchy; a belief that professing Christians (particularly if they are white and male) are de facto good and safe and that child protection measures are therefore not necessary; a dismissal of whistleblowers as bitter or rebellious or too young to be worth listening to and a dismissal of queer individuals’ ability to speak to any issue in the church; a nepotistic emphasis on protecting those in power and a greater emphasis on forgiving the powerful than on protecting the vulnerable.

It is wholly unsurprising that this happened. But that does not make it any less horrifying.

For more reading on the situation with the Ortbergs and at Menlo Church, see this post, Daniel’s twitter account, and his wife Grace’s twitter account

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