Nearly a year after Menlo Church in California contracted the Zero Abuse Project to investigate whether the son of former senior pastor John Ortberg engaged in any sexual misconduct during his time at the church, the abuse prevention organization has found no evidence of wrongdoing.
In a 117-page report, the Zero Abuse Project, which was contracted by Menlo Church in December 2020, said they found no evidence that John Ortberg III — who they refer to as Individual A — abused any children during his time volunteering at the church, despite his admission of having a sexual attraction to minors.
“In the course of our 104 interviews, no witness disclosed that they were sexually abused or assaulted by Individual A. Additionally, no witness disclosed being aware of sexual misconduct by Individual A. Some of the witnesses we spoke with acknowledged being alone with Individual A under circumstances where he had the opportunity to harm them but did not,” the investigators wrote.
“As one example, a witness told us that, as a boy, he had a number of interactions with Individual A, including an instance when he was in a car alone with Individual A. In the words of this witness: ‘I figured that during an hour-long car ride alone or something, that would be the perfect time for someone who may have expressed those desires to make a move or act upon it. But during the whole car ride, we just chatted a little bit…I never had a strange or sexual encounter or [had] him touch me in the time that I knew him and when I was around him,’” the investigators noted.
In 2018, John Ortberg III informed his father of what the church described as “an unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors.” Pastor Ortberg, according to the report, did not alert authorities, nor did he inform any other staff or elders at the church.
“Individual A had served as a volunteer and part-time employee in various Menlo activities involving youth since 2008 and was volunteering at Menlo Park campus at the time of the conversation with Pastor Ortberg,” the report said.
“From the date of the conversation until the information was reported to church leaders in November of 2019, Individual A volunteered for Menlo Students at the Menlo Park campus worship services and programs approximately 10 times and participated in Menlo’s Mexicali trip from February 14–19, 2019,” it further explained.
John Ortberg III informed Daniel Lavery, Ortberg's estranged daughter, who currently identifies as a transgender male, of his attraction to minors on Nov. 15, 2019.
Six days later, on Nov. 21, 2019, Lavery sent an email to Menlo church leaders informing them of her brother’s attraction to “boys between the age[s] of 8 and 13.” Pastor Ortberg was placed on paid, personal leave the following day, and an investigation conducted by Fred Alvarez of Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass “did not find anyone with knowledge of misconduct by Individual A.”
Pastor Ortberg was then allowed to return to Menlo Church as teaching pastor by elders. The congregation was informed of the initial investigation in general terms, but they were not told of Pastor Ortberg’s personal connection to the volunteer. Pastor Ortberg also did not remove his son from his volunteer role.
On June 28, 2020, as concerns about the nature of the investigation continued, Lavery publicly named her brother as the volunteer. This revelation led to the elder board asking Pastor Ortberg to resign out of a “collective desire for healing and discernment.”
Officials at the Zero Abuse Project said they even paid careful attention to vulnerable members of the church community who had contact with Ortberg III but still found no evidence of wrongdoing.
“Throughout the Assessment, we paid attention to evidence of children who may have been particularly vulnerable at the time of their interactions with Individual A, as offenders often find children with these challenges to be easy targets for abuse,” the report said. “This included children struggling with their mental health, chemical dependency, or displaying signs of trauma. We spoke to several individuals with these challenges, and those who agreed to speak with us also revealed no sexual misconduct by Individual A.”
While no evidence of misconduct was found, investigators made several recommendations to the church, including how to improve the screening of volunteers for service. They also highlighted the “deep wounds” that “were inflicted as a result of this case.”
“In the course of this assessment, many congregants shared with us their feelings of broken trust, even betrayal, and how the decisions of Pastor Ortberg and the elders impacted themselves and their families. As a result, some congregants have left the church, and some told us that they are choosing to stay in the hope that this report, and the church’s response to it, will move Menlo to a place of healing,” they said. “Healing, though, does not mean forgetting. If Menlo is to mend its relationship with the congregation and better protect children, it must not forget these events but instead process them with humility and learn from them.”