Menlo Church Investigation Finds No Direct Evidence or Disclosures of Sexual Abuse

By Bob Smietana
John Ortberg Menlo
The Rev. John Ortberg preaches at Menlo Church in June 2020. (Video screengrab via Menlo Church)

A third-party investigation at one of northern California’s most prominent megachurches that consumed its congregation and former pastor’s fractious family ended this week with a report that found no evidence the pastor’s adult child had acted on his confessed attraction to minors.

“After interviewing 104 witnesses and reviewing or analyzing more than 500,000 documents, Zero Abuse Project did not find any disclosure or other direct evidence the volunteer in question sexually abused a child,” said the report by the firm hired by Menlo Church near San Francisco to study its handling of the confession.

In 2018, one of Pastor John Ortberg’s offspring, referred to only as “Individual A” in the report, but identified in earlier news reports as Johnny Ortberg, confessed to having long been sexually attracted to children.

John Ortberg, a bestselling author who played a role in exposing misconduct by former Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels, did not report the confession to church staff or other leaders. Nor did he remove Individual A from volunteering with children at the church or insist the volunteer stop coaching as a youth sports team.

The matter remained secret until another Ortberg family member, Daniel Lavery, informed church leaders. The pastor was suspended in late 2019 and was allowed to return, but the congregation was not told about the family connection between Individual A and their pastor.

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“… Zero Abuse concludes that the decision of the Senior Pastor not to disclose to church leaders or others the conversation he had with the volunteer, as well as the decision of the church Elders not to be fully transparent about this situation, caused significant damage to the Menlo community,” the report states.

The report found leaders had harmed the church by withholding key information from congregation members, including that the church volunteer who had confessed to being attracted to children was related to Menlo pastor John Ortberg. Zero Abuse Project was also critical of Ortberg, who resigned in the summer of 2020 after months of controversy at the church.

The report also found flaws in the church’s child protection policies and recommended a series of changes, including that the church undertake a restorative justice process in order to rebuild trust.

The review by Zero Abuse did uncover an unrelated incident of sexual misconduct by a staff member at Menlo. During the review, the church learned a staff member had allegedly solicited nude photos from a teenage boy while serving on staff at another church.  

“We advised and assisted Menlo in reporting this case to the authorities and also advised Menlo to terminate the employment of this individual,” Zero Abuse stated in its report. “Menlo did terminate this individual’s employment and communicated this case to its community and the public.”

Zero abuse also found that Individual A was often alone with individual youth group members, including given them rides home but found no evidence of grooming or abuse. At the time, church rules did not ban volunteers from being alone with children or youth of the opposite sex.

The report also raised concern about a laptop belonging to Individual A, which had gone missing at one point. Several witnesses reported that Individual A was concerned about their search history being reviewed, because of visits to sites about people who were attracted to children. Individual A denied any illegal activity to the witnesses Zero Abuse spoke to.

“In our conversation with him, Individual A also denied doing anything illegal with the laptop. However, he did decline our offer to examine the laptop,” the report stated. The report also stated the evidence “supports a conclusion that Individual A’s laptop had a search history related to his attraction to children.”

Zero Abuse recommended Menlo Church take a number of steps, including hiring a full-time child protection director, strengthening its child protection policy and expanding its mandatory reporter training.

Church leaders plan to hold an open house on October 17 to discuss the report. They also apologized for how church leaders acted.

“We mourn the hurt we have caused, and we hope the completion and findings of this investigation are the next steps in a healing journey,” John Crosby, the church’s transitional pastor and David Kim, chair of the church session, said in a letter to the congregation.

Bob SmietanaBob Smietana is a national reporter for Religion News Service. 



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11 thoughts on “Menlo Church Investigation Finds No Direct Evidence or Disclosures of Sexual Abuse”

  1. Weird the way churches hand out titles: a ‘child protection director’? What’s wrong with ‘child protection manager’, or even better, ‘child protection officer’. But the whole title is weird. Why not ‘Ministry Standards Officer’? Then it looks like the church is interested in the whole area of ministry conduct, and not merely a point reaction to an incident. Or how about ‘Ministry Standards Minister’. After all, we all serve.

  2. Dolly Patterson

    This situation was a TRAGEDY for all involved! I damn Daniel Laverly for starting it. He should have dealt w it privately w his family…he had no proof that his brother had abused a child!!!…. And my heart aches for John Jr. My son benefited and grew so much from participating in the youth group.I wept and wept and wept when these accusations were going on.

    1. Did you read the article. Daniel brought it to his dads attention because he was concerned his brother might do something. As far as I’m concerned Daniel is the hero. To many times schools and churches hide this stuff or make excuses. Good for Daniel. Read the article in Christian post or religious news service. A lot more detail of the backstory.

  3. It was honorable for the son to confess to his father his attraction to children. How sad that in the wake of that, the son’s ministry efforts weren’t redirected elsewhere. Elderly people? The impoverished? Surely it’s not hard to find a “field white for harvest” if one is a willing worker.

  4. Many of us are so distanced from the epicentre of events, within the family, and at the Church; that all of our speculation involves weaknesses of validity. Such that our voyeuristic understanding rather reflects our own life experiences and embedded prejudices.
    With that caveat in mind, my tendency, on the basis of what is in the public domain, is to wonder whether John Ortberg’s fundamentalism, led him to be an abusive parent. I would further speculate that how JO’s fundamentalism played out across sexuality in his own person, played into the issues which developed for John the third, and played into how gender played out for Daniel.
    Such abusing of children by parents, need not go beyond the imposition of parental fundamentalism on children. The force of such abusing needing no additional expression in non-fundamentalist behaviour. Albeit JO’s management of his own sexuality, might be so intertwined with his own fundamentalism, that across inevitable child empathy with a parent, neither John the third or Daniel were able to find an acceptable gender or sexual model in their father. John the third’s sexual development ending perhaps at age five, Daniel not wanting to be what a woman was in his father’s eyes.
    We know too little about John the third’s “confession” event. Perhaps others have reshaped how it actually played out. I admit to my sympathies in these family events, lying with Daniel.

    1. Ortberg? Former key pastor at Willow, a fundamentalist?

      Quick, tell us another one.

      Although it is pretty clear there is something rotten at the Center of Willow Creek. Fundamentalism ain’t it.

      1. Kamilla, thank you for replying. I intended to refer to fundamentalism (the grounding and limiting parameters and dynamics of personal meaning making) rather than Fundamentalism (a theological turn, or approach to the Bible). The issue for me is whether or not a parent, imposes their own meaning-making on their children, confines their children within their own adult meaning-making (or some part of that). Where so doing denies the child the freedom that I see as implicit in the Bible’s thesis; and denies a child the developmental conditions that current psychology indicates is necessary.
        If you respect Daniel’s testimony as valid, then that testimony indicates that if his child dares to resist and oppose the understanding of JO, then the ultimate response is excoriating fury. That fury the other side of the coin of being that has enabled JO to become the Christian celebrity that he once was.
        To respect the usages of transgenderism, costs us nothing. To condemn those usages indicates one’s own fundamentalism, which is okay. There is room for difference of view and judgement, just as long as it remains civil and respectful. If you have some other understanding of why two children of one family should have such fundamental issues with sexuality and gender, I would appreciate hearing of it.
        Take care.

        1. I think there is a poison at the heart of Willow Creek which has nothing to do with either type of fundamentalism and everything to do with sexual abuse and it’s cover up. Both Bill Hybels and his mentor, Gilbert Bilezikian, have been credibly accused of sexual harassment/abuse. There is also the convention that the third founding elder was pushed out early on because of similar issues, but I have been unable to track that down. I saw an explanation of it several years ago, and of course didn’t save it and now it is impossible to find.

          I do think it is significant that two of the three Ortberg children have such issues.

          If you mean what I think you mean by expecting the usages of transgenderism, you are quite wrong. It affects us in significant and very important ways. In the first place, it’s a lie. No ne can change sex. All they can do is change external presentation.

          In the second place, it leads to female erasure and the loss of hard enough female only spaces. The experience of two female students n Loudoun country schools as well as female prisoners in this country and in Britain shows this quite clearly. It means the loss of fair athletic competition for women as well.

          And, most frighteningly, it is leading to the inability to accurately and honestly describe, and even treat, male and females and their differing biological and medical needs. A world where mothers are described as “birthing people” who may “chest feed” their babies and where men need cervical exams is a false and dangerous place.

          1. Kamilla, thank you for your considered reply.
            I judge that gender and sexual identity will remain contentious issues going forward. I see human beings as creating themselves through faith and meaning-making. We have had approaching 1600 years or so of the Bible supplying faith and meaning-making resource; with secular powers making use of Christianity as a crucial mechanism of social control. The male/female man/woman binary becoming the constructed norm; with sexual norms attaching to that gender binary. So the human world we have in our local societies, is built on the algorithm of that binary.
            For whatever set of reasons, we now see powerful cultural and political forces which are determined to deconstruct and reconstruct the human world. Those forces are likely to grow stronger, be more widely supported, and have greater effect on our shared world. The focus on gender and sexual dimensions of identity, is then strategic for those and that set on reconstruction of our human world.
            As the primary guardian of the male/female man/woman binary, Christianity is faced with the challenge of how to engage with and respond to this new faith-kid on the block.
            My choice is to treat both Christianity and this new movement, as generically equal, as both being faith and meaning-making projects. The basis of judgement then being, “by their fruits”. What humanity will each mediate in the human world which is their shared context; how will they engage with and respond to one another. My sense is that some kind of fusion will emerge; with groupings splitting off on both sides; so radical Christian and radical gender/sexual identity, fiercely antagonistic to one another. When the dust of that settles, we will have what we will have; but the journey to that is going to be fractious.

    2. Oh, and Daniel is a she. Always has been, always will be no amount of surgical or chemical intervention can change that n

  5. Just making a quick note of something relevant to the story, particularly since Smietana describes the Ortbergs as a “fractious family”.

    The Daniel Lavery mentioned in the piece is actually John Ortberg’s daughter Mallory who now goes by the name Daniel and presents as male.

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