(RNS) — In the summer of 2018, a volunteer at Menlo Church came to the Rev. John Ortberg seeking help.
The congregation member, who volunteered with youth and children at the Bay area megachurch and in the community, had been experiencing “an unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors” and needed the pastor’s support.
After hearing this admission, Ortberg asked if the volunteer had ever acted on that attraction.
The volunteer said no.
Once Ortberg was convinced the volunteer was telling the truth and was not a danger to others, he prayed for the person and offered a referral for counseling and then allowed the volunteer to continue working with children.
In what Menlo Church’s elders would later call “poor judgment” and a betrayal of trust, the megachurch pastor did not notify the church’s staff of the volunteer’s admitted attraction to minors.
He did not notify the church’s elder board.
He did not suggest the volunteer stop working with children – in fact, the pastor and his family encouraged the volunteer in his work as a coach of an Ultimate Frisbee team for high school students.
Instead, Ortberg, the lead pastor of Menlo, kept what he had learned about the volunteer secret from his congregation.
Especially the volunteer’s name: John “Johnny” Ortberg III, the pastor’s youngest son.
But nothing in a church or in a family stays hidden forever.
Concerned about the safety of children in the church and his brother’s well-being, the elder Ortberg’s other son, Daniel Lavery, revealed his father’s actions in an email to Menlo Church leaders in November 2019 and made a public break with his parents. At that point, Lavery chose to keep the reasons for the break confidential.
The controversy that ensued tarnished the reputation of the father, who’d built a career as a friendly, nonconfrontational evangelical pastor who had mostly avoided culture war battles while promoting seeker-friendly evangelism and conservative values of family and sexuality.
Before coming in 2004 to Menlo Church, a San Francisco-area congregation of about 5,000, John Ortberg and his wife, Nancy, had been teaching pastors at Willow Creek Community Church, one of the nation’s largest churches, in the suburbs of Chicago.
In 2014, Menlo left the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to join a breakaway denomination called ECO, A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians. The church cited theological differences in the break, which came after years of dispute in the PC(U.S.A.) over sexuality, and paid close to $9 million in order to keep its property.
After the initial Menlo investigation, the Rev. Ortberg took a leave of absence and was reprimanded by the church in early 2020. He underwent a brief restoration process. Then Ortberg, a popular speaker and evangelical leader who played a key role in drawing public attention to allegations of misconduct against Bill Hybels, the legendary founder of Willow Creek, returned to the pulpit and the church hoped to move on.
Lavery wrote in his initial 2019 email that he hoped Menlo’s leadership would conduct a “robust, thorough inquiry” into the matter. But in June, believing the church had failed to do so, Lavery posted his email to the church elders — this time revealing his brother’s name — on social media.
The revelation that the volunteer was John Ortberg’s son raised many questions that remain unanswered. And a group of critics — including Lavery, church members, a former friend of the Ortbergs and others — hope public pressure will cause the church to conduct what they call a more thorough investigation.
A fateful meeting
Lavery had high hopes when he planned to meet with his brother, who is in his early 30s and a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, in the fall of 2019.
The two had been close in the past, said Lavery, an author and Dear Prudence advice columnist for Slate.com. But the relationship between the two had become strained after Lavery publicly came out as trans earlier in 2018.
“I noticed that my brother would no longer use a name or pronouns to refer to me,” Lavery told Religion News Service. “He stopped returning my texts. He avoided me. And that was very painful.”
After talking to his family, Lavery reached out and invited his brother and his sister, Laura Ortberg Turner, to visit the apartment that Lavery shares with his wife, Grace, who is also trans. Family members told Lavery that Johnny was having a hard time understanding his gender transition and that Lavery should “be gentle” with him.
Lavery hoped the two could reconcile. Instead, the meeting would shatter their family to pieces.
Things started out well, said Lavery. All three siblings met at Lavery’s apartment and visited for a while before Turner, a writer and former RNS columnist, left. After their sister departed, Lavery and his brother talked for a bit about the state of their relationship.
Then, according to Lavery, his brother turned to him and said, “I have something to tell you.”
“It was then I learned the reason my brother had been avoiding me was not only because of my transition, but it was because everyone else in the family knew that he was a pedophile. And I didn’t,” Lavery said.
Johnny Ortberg declined repeated requests for comment.
Lavery said his brother told him that for years he had experienced sexual attraction to children but never acted on that attraction. He told Lavery that he had shared this secret with their parents and their sister the year before.
Still, his brother continued working with kids. According to Lavery, the family had a group chat where they cheered on the Ultimate Frisbee team his brother coached. Lavery feared he had become complicit in giving approval to someone who could be a danger to children.
Lavery was also concerned that his brother invoked the phrase “virtuous pedophile” to describe himself — a term used by an online support group of people attracted to children who never act on that attraction and who maintain that abuse is wrong. Some group members believe it is safe, even healing, for people with this attraction to work with children.
After his brother left, Lavery spoke to his wife and to Nicole Cliffe, a close family friend. Then he called his father.
“I had entered that phone call thinking surely we will be wanting the same thing, which is for Johnny to get treatment and to not be alone with children,” Lavery told RNS. “It’s not safe for children. It’s not healthy for Johnny.”
Instead, Lavery told RNS, his father insisted on keeping the matter secret and urged Lavery to show compassion to his brother. Lavery said his father also used the term “virtuous pedophile” in referring to his youngest son — a claim the Rev. Ortberg denied. A spokesman for the Menlo Church elders said John Ortberg has not used that term in their conversations with them.
During the call, Lavery said, John Ortberg insisted his youngest son be able to keep working with children.
Lavery recalled his father saying his brother “would have no reason to live” if he could not continue his volunteer work.
“I became convinced that my parents do not have my brother’s best interests at heart,” Lavery said.
When his father refused to act, Lavery wrote the initial email to church leaders expressing his concerns, detailing his conversations with his brother and his father, along with his brother’s long history of work with children. He also cut ties with the family and took his wife’s last name.
“I would not share this information with you unless I believed there to be a credible basis for a serious and thorough investigation of every aspect of my brother’s work with children, and the cover-up my parents have conducted,” he wrote. “In the most charitable reading possible, my parents have acted with unconscionable disregard for their responsibilities as leaders, ministers, and parents.”
In response, the church placed John Ortberg on leave in November — although it kept that information from the congregations for more than a month. The church also contacted leaders at ECO, its denomination.
Church elders hired an employment lawyer named Fred W. Alvarez, a partner at Coblentz Patch Duffy & Bass LLP, to look at the concerns raised by Lavery. A spokesman for the church’s elder board described Alvarez as a respected investigator. Alvarez’s official bio describes him as an employment lawyer whose practice focuses on defending employers but lists no expertise in working with churches or abuse.
The church also barred the volunteer from working in its children’s ministry and said the volunteer no longer has a role at the church. Church leaders do not expect the volunteer to have any future role at the church, according to a spokesperson for the elders.
The younger Ortberg has also ended his role in volunteering with the Ultimate Frisbee team.
Since the church wanted the investigation to be independent, with no ties to their pastor, church leaders did not contact GRACE – a leading evangelical group whose name stands for “Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment” — because the group’s founder had previously worked closely with the Ortbergs in their efforts to investigate the alleged misconduct by Hybels. The Willow Creek founder, who denied any misconduct, resigned in 2018, followed by most of the church’s leadership. An outside panel found that the allegations against Hybels were credible.
Alvarez’s investigation, which lasted about six weeks, included interviews with children’s ministry staff — past and present — and a review of volunteer records. According to the church elders, the investigator found no allegations of misconduct.
The investigation closed just after Christmas. Church elders reprimanded the Rev. Ortberg for poor judgment and sent him through a “restoration program” that included apologizing to staff.
John Ortberg returned to the pulpit in March, with a sermon titled “Lessons Learned on Leave.”
A brief investigation
Lavery was not convinced by the investigation.
According to the church’s elders, the investigator did not speak to any parents whose children had contact with the volunteer. The investigator did not speak to any other volunteers who worked alongside the younger Ortberg.
The investigator did not speak to any outside group where the volunteer had a role working with children. During interviews with staff, the investigator did not ask specifically about the volunteer’s conduct or reveal there were any concerns about the volunteer.
A spokesman for the church’s elder board also told RNS that the investigator decided not to interview the volunteer, deeming it unnecessary.
In addition, the church’s elder board repeatedly refused to reveal the volunteer’s name, citing confidentiality concerns, describing the person only as someone who was part of the church community and never as someone who had direct family ties to leadership.
“We did not disclose the name of the volunteer during the investigation due to the confidentiality requirements of an ongoing investigation. Once the investigation closed, the results found that there was no indication of wrongdoing,” the church’s elders told RNS in a statement.
That decision left both congregation members and other organizations where the younger Ortberg had volunteered in the dark, said Jimmy Hinton, a pastor and child abuse prevention advocate.
“In situations like this,” Hinton said, “what the leadership needs to realize is that they have the benefit of being in the know and the power to keep everybody else in the dark. And that’s a dangerous, dangerous situation for any parent who has a child in that congregation.”
Hinton, whose own father, a former pastor, was convicted of abuse in Pennsylvania, said church leaders are often blinded by friendship when it comes to investigating concerns about the pastor or members of a pastor’s family.
He does not know if there was any misconduct at Menlo Church. But he sees a great risk that needs to be investigated.
“I think all of us who are not members of that congregation can see this,” he said. “Every decision that they made was a really bad decision. We can see that clearly because we’re not friends with them. We don’t know these people. We’re just looking at the facts that are in front of us.”
Shira M. Berkovits, president of Sacred Spaces, an organization that seeks to “prevent and respond to sexual abuse and other abuses of power” in Jewish communities, said there are plenty of opportunities for volunteer work that do not involve contact with children.
Berkovits has no specific knowledge about the situation at Menlo Church. In general, she said, it would be “the far more prudent choice” for someone who is attracted to children to stick to those other opportunities.
“Speaking generally, a person who discloses sexual attraction to children should not be employed to work with children or permitted to volunteer with children,” she told RNS in an email. “It is important to note that sexual attraction to children does not mean that a person will act on that attraction, and one who admits to the attraction and is seeking qualified treatment from an expert, has begun the necessary work. However, even as an individual may be doing the work, he or she should still not be given a position which provides access to children.”
Still keeping secrets
Lavery was quick to insist he knows of no specific instances of misconduct by his brother. He said his brother has also insisted that he has never harmed anyone. Lavery hopes that is the case.
Yet given the scope of his brother’s work with kids — which included years of mission trips to Mexico — Lavery believes a lengthy and thorough investigation should be in order. That kind of review cannot be done quickly, he said.
“I don’t know how you can investigate 16 years of volunteer work in about five weeks over the Christmas holidays,” Lavery said.
Keeping his brother’s name secret also made it harder to find out if his brother had ever acted on his attraction, Lavery said. No one in the church or the community would have known they or their children were at risk.
For example, Johnny Ortberg served for years as a coach with the Gunn Control, an Ultimate Frisbee team made up of students from Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California. In November 2019, he sent a note to team members saying he had stepped down because of a family crisis. They received no other information, said Michael Tao, who was team captain for two years.
Tao, who is 18, told RNS in a series of emails that he had seen tweets on social media about his former coach and called them “quite unbelievable.” A team member for four years, he said he never saw any inappropriate conduct.
“In the years that he has coached my teammates and me, not only has he been an excellent coach, but also a great person who everyone could share a laugh with,” Tao said. “Now I am not refuting the condition which Johnny has, but am putting out there that he is a good person who has never acted on said condition, which Twitter is making it out to be.”
Shannon Mather, whose son played with Gunn Control, said she received no information from Menlo Church. She said her son has never expressed any concerns about his coach.
Still, she was angered by the church’s handling of the situation and especially at the Rev. Ortberg.
“His silence and secrecy put my child in harm’s way,” she said. “He was in an admittedly horrible, untenable position and he made the wrong choice.”
Lavery said he did not want to name his brother but ultimately felt he had no choice. He believes the church’s elders and his father have worked primarily to protect their reputations, rather than finding the truth.
He said the family has long believed that there is one set of rules for the Ortbergs and different rules for everyone else.
“I’m not naming Johnny out of malice, but he cannot be trusted to set the terms of his work with children,” he said.
Lavery also said his father urged him to remain quiet, out of fear that his brother might harm himself if he were cut off from contact with children.
John Ortberg has denied this allegation, saying he has never considered his son a threat to himself or others.
In an email to RNS, the father expressed both his confidence in the church’s investigation and his regret for his actions.
“I am deeply sorry for my shortcomings in handling this situation, and for not fully considering the legitimate concerns of our congregation and my responsibility to ensure the safety and security of everyone who comes through our doors,” Ortberg said in the statement. “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 children and youth.”
The pastor also said the church had “extensively investigated” the situation and found “no misconduct or allegations of misconduct towards anyone in the Menlo Church community.”
He said he also urged anyone who had knowledge of wrongdoing to report it to authorities. Menlo Church elders have made a similar statement.
“Again, I am deeply sorry about my poor judgment and acknowledge that I betrayed my sacred trust as Senior Pastor,” he said in the statement.
Ortberg declined to answer a question about whether he remains fit to serve as a pastor or spiritual leader, saying decisions about his future lie in the hands of ECO and the Menlo Church elders.
Nicole Cliffe, a writer and family friend, said she hopes John Ortberg will step down.
Cliffe co-founded the Toast, a now-dormant but beloved blog, with Lavery. At the time, she was a self-described “happy atheist.” She said when Lavery first introduced her to his parents, he told her, “you’re going to like them more than you like me.” John and Nancy Ortberg are known for having a gift of drawing people in and engaging them in discussions about Christianity.
In 2015, Cliffe converted to Christianity after reading an obituary that John Ortberg had written about theologian Dallas Willard.
“Since then,” she later wrote, “I have been dunked by a pastor in the Pacific Ocean while shivering in a too-small wetsuit. I have sung ‘Be Thou My Vision’ and celebrated Communion on a beach, while weirded-out Californians tiptoed around me. I go to church. I pray. My politics have not changed; the fervency with which I try to live them out has.”
John Ortberg baptized her. Lavery and his siblings were there too, as was Nancy Ortberg, John’s wife.
When Lavery first told Cliffe about the conversation with his brother, Cliffe said she told her friend to go slow. She kept in contact with his sister, herself a writer. (Turner declined to be interviewed for this article.) Cliffe also said she spoke with Johnny Ortberg, trying to convince him to end his volunteer work and to seek treatment.
She wanted to believe the best.
Cliffe later broke with the family after being interviewed by Alvarez. Cliffe said she told the investigator that her friend, Turner, would not allow her child to be alone with her younger brother — a choice Cliffe said Turner had confided in her. The investigator, Cliffe said, acted surprised and told her he had not known of the restriction. John Ortberg said in an email that no such restriction exists.
Cliffe, who has a young son, said she believes her friends can no longer be trusted. She said she worried the Ortbergs would never have warned her about possible risks to her son — choosing to protect their secrets rather than watch out for the best interests of others.
She described the whole situation as profoundly sad.
Cliffe believes John Ortberg has betrayed the trust needed to be a pastor. Instead, she said, he needs time for self-reflection and to make amends for his decisions.
“John Ortberg is not capable at this point of being a spiritual leader to anyone,” Cliffe said.
Cliffe also worries about the fallout for her friend, Lavery. She said Lavery’s concerns have been dismissed in part because of his transition or have been seen as the biased comments of an estranged child angry at his parents.
“I would like people to know that Danny sacrificed everything,” she said. “His entire family, extended relatives, there’s no one left. Danny put his whole life aside to attempt to protect children.”
This story has been updated.