John Ortberg, the senior pastor of Menlo Church, is stepping down from his role at the evangelical Presbyterian church that sits prominently in downtown Menlo Park, following community outcry after the church's board learned that he had allowed his son to continue to work with youth for more than a year after learning that he was sexually attracted to children.
Menlo Church attracts about 6,000 weekly congregants across six Bay Area campuses, including a Mountain View location on Cuesta Drive, and on its website brands itself as a family-friendly faith community, but it faced a reckoning as details emerged regarding troubling revelations in late 2019 and early 2020. Ortberg, who has led the church for 17 years, was put on a leave of absence this winter, and later reinstated. On Wednesday morning, the church announced that its governing board unanimously accepted Ortberg's resignation, according to a statement on the church's website.
His last day will be Sunday, Aug. 2, when he is expected to address the congregation.
Ortberg's "poor judgment has resulted in pain and broken trust among many parents, youth volunteers and staff" and he "needs to focus on healing and reconciliation within his own family," the church's board stated.
After an initial investigation that was criticized as inadequate, Menlo Church announced earlier this month it would launch a supplemental investigation, although it has yet to hire an outside firm to conduct it.
The church board plans to hire an interim pastor to serve in a transitional role during the search for a new senior pastor, according to the statement, and in the interim, Eugene Lee will continue as executive pastor. The congregation pushed back its annual congregational meeting several weeks to Aug. 30, during which some board seats will be up for election.
The board — known as an Elder Board — has nine members, and with the senior pastor, leads the church community. When the board was alerted last November to concerns about Ortberg's decision to permit his younger son to keep working with children, it promptly hired the law firm Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass LLP to conduct an investigation, which ran from November through early January, after which the pastor was reinstated. Statements from Menlo Church at the time identified him only as a youth volunteer, and not as Ortberg's son.
But in late June, Danny Lavery, the pastor's older son, publicly revealed on Twitter that he had called on the church to conduct the investigation, and that it was his younger brother who had revealed his interest in children. Lavery made his initial letter to the church public in order to push for a more robust, thorough inquiry, he said.
The younger Ortberg son has not been accused, arrested or convicted of any misconduct, according to a spokesperson for the family who asked not to be named. The Almanac's own investigation also failed to turn up any police reports or accusations.
The younger son was removed from his volunteer role immediately after the Elder Board learned of Lavery's initial concerns and church staff has put "safeguards in place" to prevent any future volunteer involvement by him, according to Heather Holliday, senior director of marketing and communications at the church.
But the revelation of the son's identity raised questions among some current and former members of the church about the adequacy of the initial investigation.
To start, the pastor's younger son, who Lavery said in his November 2019 statement to the church was 30 years old , was not interviewed during the investigation, according to the family's spokesperson.
He "believes that his work with the church has helped the community in many ways, and he has always acted and behaved with the highest levels of responsibility and commitment," the Ortbergs' spokesperson said in an email.
Religion News Service, a respected 86-year-old news service that covers religion throughout the United States, reported that, according to the church's elders, the initial investigator did not interview any parents whose children had contact with the pastor's son, any other volunteers who worked with him, or any outside group where he worked with kids. And in interviews with church staff, the interviewer did not ask specific questions about his conduct. Holliday confirmed this information to be accurate with The Almanac.
The scope of the church's initial investigation was to learn if the pastor had received a confession from his youngest son that he struggled with unwanted thoughts about children, failed to prevent his son from volunteering and failed to inform anyone at the church; and to determine whether his son engaged in any misconduct, and whether there were any specific allegations or information about possible misconduct while he volunteered at the church, according to a July 29 statement from the church responding to questions it had received.
The investigation involved speaking to "relevant student and children's ministry leaders going back to 2008, each of whom was asked to disclose any information about which they were aware involving any allegations of misconduct by any leader or volunteer," according to the statement.
Kelly Morehead, who attended the church for many years, whose children participated in youth programs, and who recently volunteered as a leader for young women, told HuffPost that she was not contacted during the initial investigation.
As alleged omissions in the initial investigation became public, the church's Elder Board announced on July 11 that it would launch a supplemental investigation; form a new committee with church elders, staff, parents and volunteers to provide oversight over the investigation; and conduct a full audit of "policies, practices and training related to child and youth safety" that would be led by an expert, independent outside organization. The policies will be audited regularly, the board announced.
The church announced July 29 that the supplemental investigation is moving forward and that it was in the process of creating an "Investigative Advisory Committee" with staff, volunteer, parent, elder and denomination representatives to vet and recommend a new firm with expertise in child safety and sexual abuse to lead the investigation into the pastor's son's involvement in Menlo Church or church-sponsored activities involving minors.
The church's youth program works with more than 1,000 children each Sunday, according to a church document by ministry leader John Garrison.
The church board also said it would, with guidance from experts, conduct a full audit of its child and youth safety practices, which will be regularly audited.
Last November, Menlo Church publicly announced a series of actions in response to what church leaders determined to be "poor judgment" by Ortberg when he permitted "a person serving in the church community" who admitted an "unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors" to continue to work with children for about 16 months after disclosing that information, according to a Jan. 21 statement from the church's Elder Board.
Pastor Ortberg did not respond to the Almanac's request for an interview or comment. In his resignation letter, Ortberg acknowledged his error and his "regret for not having served our church with better judgment. Extensive conversations I had with my youngest son gave no evidence of risk of harm. ... However, for my part, I did not balance my responsibilities as a father with my responsibilities as a leader."
His younger son volunteered with the church for several years, on and off, until mid-2019, according to the spokesperson for the Ortberg family.
Lavery said he also told the board that his brother had traveled a number of times on mission trips to Mexico where he may have been with children unsupervised. According to the Ortbergs' spokesperson, the travel was supervised.
The day after Lavery went to the Elder Board, on Nov. 22, church elders suspended Pastor Ortberg. And by Nov. 24, the board had retained an independent investigator, Fred W. Alvarez, whose bio says he specializes in employment law, to look into the matter.
The investigator did not find any misconduct in the Menlo Church community, board chair Beth Seabolt reported in a January statement to the church. But Ortberg was found to have "exhibited poor judgment that was inconsistent with his responsibilities as senior pastor," Seabolt said at the time.
Ortberg, who has served as senior pastor since 2004, according to the church website, acknowledged in a July 6 statement to the church community that it was his younger son who was the volunteer in question and apologized for not taking action to stop him from working with children.
"When my son first spoke to me, I should have immediately asked our church Elders for counsel and I should have exerted my full influence to ensure that he did not volunteer again at any event with kids and youth," he wrote in his statement.
His son also continued to work with high school students as an Ultimate Frisbee coach. As of June 2019, he was listed as the coach of Gunn High School in Palo Alto's Ultimate Frisbee team, Gunn Control. He stopped coaching the Gunn Control team in November 2019 after sending a note to team members saying he had stepped down because of a family crisis, Religion News Service reported.
He was also listed as a coach for the Bay Area's Red Dawn team in the 2019 U.S. Open Club Championships Under-20 division.
He was a coach for about five years, according to the Ortbergs' spokesperson.
After the investigation, the church put Ortberg on a "restoration plan," a faith-based process in which he worked with the church's staff and board members to rebuild trust. He was reinstated as senior pastor on Jan. 24 and returned to the pulpit the week of March 7, as previously reported in The Almanac.
During a March 8 sermon, Ortberg said he had had 80 meetings with individuals or small groups to listen to the church community's input.
Then, on June 28, Lavery identified his brother on Twitter as the unnamed volunteer. Lavery told The Almanac that his primary goal was to make sure there would be a robust investigation.
"I don't believe you can investigate 16 years in a month and a half," Lavery said.
In the aftermath of Lavery's announcement, current and former church members raised questions over the thoroughness of the investigation and what confidence the faith community could have in its findings.
"We understand our initial investigation could have gone further and included specific expertise in child safety and sex abuse issues, and it could have been informed by conversations with a wider group of people," the Menlo Church Elders stated in a July 11 online message to churchgoers. "Based on the feedback we've received, we are initiating a supplemental independent investigation into concerns raised about the volunteer."
Parishioners push for transparency
The Almanac spoke with several former parishioners who are parents. Several said they wanted the church to dig deeper to see if the younger son was responsible for any misconduct while working with children, and others urged the church to be more transparent with how it is conducting its supplemental investigation. Some called for Ortberg to step down.
Ruth Hutchins, a church member and parent who has been chronicling the church's statements to parishioners and writing her opinions about them on her personal blog, gave her own suggestions on how the church should have handled the situation: "If your son attended the Menlo Park middle school or high school youth program over the past 10 years, and if his group leader was someone close to John Ortberg, I think the church owes you answers. Menlo Church should have given you a copy of their investigation report. In fact, you should have been interviewed," she wrote on her blog.
Morehead, the church parent and volunteer who said she was not contacted during the initial investigation, told The Almanac that church volunteers have rules they are expected to follow while working with youth. Volunteers undergo background checks, provide personal references and attend regular training, she said. They are taught about being a mandated reporter and said there are rules in place for the type of physical contact volunteers are permitted with children side hugs are OK, front-to-front hugs are not. Volunteers are trained to be supportive and to be involved in children's lives by attending sports games or performances. Many work with the same cohort of students through middle and high school.
Morehead said she wants the church to take responsibility and say, "'This was a horrible violation of trust on the part of the church by John. We are going to make sure this absolutely never happens again.'"
"If you substitute school for church, principal for pastor, and school board for elder board, there would be no room for debate," she said. "I've tried to put myself in John's position, and what I don't understand is how he could continue to put at risk not only the children with whom (his son) worked, but also (his son)."
Mountain View resident Madeleine Lux, who attended the church for about a year and a half in 2017 and 2018, said before the July 29 announcement that she would like to see Ortberg fired and for members of the church's board to turn over. "What they did was neglectful and harmful to the community," she said.
Tiger Bachler, an Atherton resident who was married at the church, volunteered regularly with youth and baptized her children there, but hasn't attended regularly for a number of years, also called for a supplemental investigation and said that Ortberg should resign or be fired. "It seems so clear to me that what he did was wrong," she said. "The children are the most vulnerable of his flock and he failed them."
The Almanac has attempted to reach church community members who may feel differently, but — due to the size of the congregation and the constraints of reporting during a pandemic and the fact that in-person services are on hold — it has been difficult to interview a larger number of parishioners.
Anyone in the Menlo Church community who wishes to report abuse or misconduct can contact the church's Elder Board by email at [email protected] or contact a campus pastor. People should also contact law enforcement if appropriate, said Holliday, the church spokesperson.
The church board released a document providing additional answers to parishioner questions on July 29, which is available online.
Kate Bradshaw writes for The Almanac, the sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.