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Church Investigations

John Ortberg’s Megachurch Announces New Investigation

Last week, megachurch pastor John Ortberg claimed his congregation had “extensively investigated” concerns about his son and found “no misconduct.”

Now elders at Menlo Church, a Bay area congregation of 5,000, say their initial investigation fell short and have announced plans for an additional “supplemental” investigation.

“While many of you know that the Board took immediate action upon learning of these concerns, 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,” church elders said in an email to the congregation Saturday, July 11.

Rev. Ortberg was placed on leave last fall after church leaders learned he had withheld information about his son from them, a move they described as “poor judgment and a betrayal of trust.”

In July 2018, Rev. Ortberg’s youngest son — who volunteered with children at the church and in the community — told his father he experienced what church leaders called an “unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors.” The senior Ortberg did not tell church leaders or staff about what he had learned from his son. Nor did he act to prevent his youngest son from working with children.

Church leaders finally learned of Ortberg’s decision after his daughter Mallory, who now identifies as a man and goes by the name of Daniel Lavery, wrote to them expressing concerns.

The elders hired an investigator who talked to church staff and Lavery, among others, but never spoke with Ortberg’s younger son, or with any parents of children who had contact with him. The elders also never officially acknowledged the family connection between Rev. Ortberg and “the volunteer” in question.

The church had consistently defended its investigation as “independent” and said no misconduct was found. Rev. Ortberg told Religion News Service he had betrayed his “sacred trust” as pastor but also defended the investigation.

After the identity of the volunteer became public in June of this year, congregation members began to pushback against the elders.

“After carefully listening to our community these last several days about the investigation into a former church volunteer, we want to first acknowledge the Board’s ownership in what we have done to contribute to the pain and distrust many of you are feeling right now,” the elders said in the statement. “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.”

Church elders said they would begin a “supplemental investigation” to be overseen by a committee including elders, parents, staff and volunteers.

On social media, Lavery expressed disappointment in the church’s announcement and called for Ortberg to be removed as pastor.

“This plan is a non-starter, a confession of failure, and a disgrace,” Lavery said on Twitter.

During an online church service, Eugene Lee, an executive pastor at Menlo Church, acknowledged the recent controversy at the beginning of his sermon.

Lee did not specifically mention Rev. Ortberg in his opening remarks, instead mentioning “a hard week for our church.”

“I have talked to so many of you who are hurting, disappointed, confused and heartbroken and I am so sorry you are feeling that way,” he said. “I want you to know that we are listening.”

“We are listening and praying and we hear your concerns. We are listening to your questions and we understand your disappointment.”

Lee also said church leaders were working on “significant next steps” which they hope to share with the church in the coming week.

Bob Smietana

Bob has served as a senior writer for Facts & Trends, senior editor of Christianity Today, religion writer at The Tennessean, correspondent for RNS and contributor to OnFaith, USA Today and The Washington Post.