Timeline

This website contains documentation and information regarding the allegations against John Ortberg and Menlo Church and the subsequent cover-up.

Below is found a chronological account of the allegations. It is updated regularly to include new information as it emerges.

Contact: If you have information or concerns about matters related to Menlo Church, email menloallegations@gmail.com.

Important: You are invited to sign this open letter to the leadership of Menlo Church calling on them for a completely new investigation, the removal of John Ortberg and the current elder board, and the implementation of a mandatory LGBTQIA+ training for staff, elders, and volunteers. The letter is written by Liz Lin, Stella Won Phelps, and Gloria Hu of the group Progressive Asian American Christians, and Pastor Nathan Roberts, Director of Community Engagement, First Lutheran Church of Columbia Heights, MN.

Between July 2018 and November 2019, Menlo Church Senior Pastor John Ortberg, Jr. protected the identity of an adult volunteer who admitted to him that he had a sexual and/or romantic attraction to young boys. The volunteer was his adult son John Ortberg III (Johnny), who has for many years worked with young people at the church, on mission trips, and as an athletic coach.

When he learned of Johnny’s disclosure in November 2019, Daniel M. Lavery, Pastor Ortberg’s other son, reported the information to the Elders of Menlo Church.

In the time since, Pastor Ortberg and the church Elders, led by Dr. Beth Seabolt, have sought to contain and cover up the story and the identity of the volunteer and have not taken meaningful steps to investigate the possibility of child endangerment. After months of inaction, Daniel Lavery revealed his brother’s identity to the public and the larger church membership in June 2020.

Former Menlo Church member Ruth Hutchins has also compiled notes documenting the church’s response since November 2019, available on her website.


The following actions are thus urgently proposed:

  1. The Ortbergs, Beth Seabolt, and all who participated in the cover-up must be removed from their positions at Menlo Church.

  2. The organization GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) must impanel an independent body to establish accountability in the Ortberg case, and improve safeguarding at Menlo Church.

  3. GRACE’s investigation must cover the Menlo Missions to Baja, the Youth Groups, and all other child-facing aspects of the institution, at all Menlo campuses.

Nov 2019

On November 21, Daniel M. Lavery reports to the Elders of Menlo Church that their senior pastor, John Ortberg Jr., had conspired in secret to provide a person experiencing compulsive sexual feelings towards children with unsupervised access to young people through youth groups–in the hopes that the Menlo Elders would conduct a confidential and thorough investigation of the report, and make such arrangements as were necessary to protect the community. Through this time until June 2020, the identity of the church volunteer is kept confidential.

The following day, Dr. Beth Seabolt, Elder of Menlo Church, replies to Daniel Lavery’s email and promises an investigation, and John Ortberg goes on unspecified “personal leave” from his pastoral duties. On November 24, Seabolt informs Daniel that Menlo Church has engaged the services of an investigator.

The investigator engaged is an employment lawyer named Fred W. Alvarez, “whose practice focuses on defending employers but lists no expertise in working with churches or abuse.” Moreover, it later comes to light that Alvarez was hired primarily to conduct “forensic computer analysis which was used to search the relevant computer records and emails in the church,” and that the small number of interviews that took place were conducted not by Alvarez but by the church’s own senior staff.

(Moreover, this choice of investigator directly contradicts John Ortberg’s own published words regarding the mishandling of abuse allegations at Willow Creek Community Church under Bill Hybels in 2018: “An independent investigation by an outside, trained expert should have been thoroughly carried out before the senior pastor was first approached. To my knowledge that did not happen. The firm chosen to investigate (more than a year after the first report) is one that, as stated on their website, “exclusively represents management.” Of course, both sides of an accusation deserve a hearing and fair representation, but a firm that is retained by one side, and whose principal work is to represent one side in such disputes, cannot be considered independent.”)

Around this time, Menlo Church also removes the volunteer from its children ministry.

Jan 2020

Less than two months later, on January 16, Seabolt writes to Daniel Lavery that “[b]ased on the investigation, the Board has no reason to believe that any harm fell upon the Menlo Community or elsewhere,” and that John Ortberg, despite what the investigation showed to be his “lack of judgment and poor decision-making,” is to be reinstated one day later on January 17, the following day, having “apologized and shown great remorse.”

Responding to Seabolt later that day, Daniel Lavery expresses concern over the brevity of the investigation and outrage over the lack of accountability and consequences for John Ortberg’s actions, asking why Ortberg had apologized and why the Menlo Board and staff had accepted that apology if no harm had indeed been done. Seabolt responds shortly, suggesting that more serious consideration might be considered.

On January 21, Seabolt responds to Daniel Lavery’s concerns, emphasizing that the investigation had involved “discussions with 17 individuals.” However, as is later discovered, the investigator “did not speak to any parents whose children had contact with the volunteer,” “any other volunteers who worked alongside the younger Ortberg,” or “any outside group where the volunteer had a role working with children.” Furthermore, the investigator “decided not to interview the volunteer, deeming it unnecessary,”and “did not ask specifically about the volunteer’s conduct or reveal there were any concerns about the volunteer.”

Additionally, in the same January 21 email, Seabolt emphasizes that John Ortberg’s “restoration plan” includes “[continuing] to keep John out of the pulpit while he works through a corrective action plan created by the Board,” and that the Board has not given a “specific return date for preaching.”

Later that same day, Menlo Church publishes the broad outlines of its investigation in an email to its members and announces that John Ortberg will return from personal leave on January 24, after a one-week delay. John Ortberg offers a non-specific apology despite Menlo Church’s assertion that no one has done anything wrong. Less than two months later, on March 8, Ortberg will return to the pulpit.

Feb 2020

Daniel Lavery publishes a statement expressing dismay at Menlo Church’s institutional failures.

Christianity Today reports on the investigation.

During this time, Boz Tchividjian, the director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) offers to impanel a qualified investigatory body for the Menlo scandal. Seabolt does not acknowledge his offer.

Mar 2020

Menlo Church holds a town hall meeting, during which Seabolt responds to Daniel Lavery’s comments by smearing him, claiming that he is “lashing out” at his family and insinuating that he is mentally unstable because he is trans. (Notes of the meeting as recorded by a parishioner.)

Grace E. Lavery, Daniel’s wife, responds to Seabolt’s comments.

At the same meeting, John Ortberg claims that he had asked the church volunteer in question “all the questions and all of the answers that came back made it clear there would be no grounds for mandatory reporting,” despite evidence to the contrary.

In a following town hall meeting on March 8, John Ortberg claims that he “did not encourage a volunteer to seek to treat their condition by seeking unsupervised access with minors,” despite evidence to the contrary. (Notes of the meeting as recorded by a parishioner.)

On the same day, he returns to the pulpit after less than four months to give a message entitled “Everybody’s Welcome. Nobody’s Perfect. Anything’s Possible.”

Jun 2020

In light of Menlo Church’s failure to conduct a thorough inquiry into the possibility of child endangerment after many months, Daniel Lavery publicly identifies the church volunteer as his brother, John Ortberg III (Johnny), and publishes the email sent to the Menlo Church elders on November 21, 2019. (See above.)

Laura Turner, John Ortberg’s daughter and Daniel Lavery’s sister, publicly accuses Daniel of falsehood, later deleting her Twitter account.

July 2020

Individuals with connections to Menlo Church and the Ortberg family begin to come forward with accounts of grooming, emotional exploitation, and abandonment:

@meowfiesta, July 3

@bblytherss, July 3

@stopthistrain28, July 3

@SarahWatson42, July 7, updated July 14

Former parishioners of Menlo Church offer testimonials as to why they have left Menlo, both before and after the allegations surfaced.

On July 6, Religion News Service reports on the investigation and cover-up.

The RNS report reveals further discrepancies in John Ortberg’s denial of the allegations. In his statement to RNS, Ortberg claims that he had not urged Daniel Lavery, contra Daniel’s own claim, to remain silent “out of fear that his brother might harm himself if he were cut off from contact with children.” However, this is contradicted by family friend Nicole Cliffe (and co-founder of The Toast alongside Daniel), who was witness to the Ortberg family’s response to Johnny Ortberg’s disclosure and who called Henry M. Gunn High School on November 18 and spoke to the police soon thereafter.

On the same day, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) issues a statement in support of Daniel Lavery’s whistleblowing.

The evening of July 6, after the publication of the RNS report, Menlo Church publishes a statement for their members ostensibly to clarify the parameters of their earlier internal investigation while reiterating that the investigation “did not find any indication of misconduct by the volunteer in question.” However, as the RNS report makes clear, the investigation was primarily concerned with the inadequacy with which John Ortberg and the church leadership had handled the complaint, and not with the content of the complaint itself. It therefore failed to investigate any actual misconduct, as the investigator neither interviewed the volunteer himself (Johnny Ortberg) nor identified either the volunteer himself or the nature of the misconduct being investigated to any of the few staff who were interviewed. Any evidence of misconduct would have been difficult to discover, recall, or reveal because “[n]o one in the church or the community would have known they or their children were at risk.”

Furthermore, Menlo Church’s claim that “volunteers for Kids’, Students’ and Missions’ areas are background screened and have been for many years” is contradicted by accounts from former volunteers.

On July 7, a longtime member of the Menlo Church community sends the following email to the Board of Elders in response to their July 6 statement, expressing bewilderment at the insufficiency of the “internal investigation”: “You keep stressing that there was no evidence of wrongdoing and that no one has come forward. How could anyone have come forward without the care and time that an expert would afford the investigation and without asking the right people the right questions?” The member’s email also calls for John and Nancy Ortberg to be fired. Menlo Church responds with a short email.

On the same day, Christianity Today reports on the investigation and cover-up, noting that “[n]either church leaders nor the Ortbergs responded to CT requests for comment beyond their public statements.”

On July 11, Menlo Church sends out a statement announcing a second investigation, while John Ortberg remains in the pulpit. This is understood as an admission that Daniel Lavery’s initial report was not, as Ortberg misleadingly claims in his statement to RNS, “extensively investigated” by the church. It also raises concerns that Ortberg continuing in his position as senior pastor will only compromise the newly announced investigation.

On July 12, RNS publishes a follow-up report on Menlo Church and their July 11 announcement. The report is syndicated by Christianity Today as well. RNS updates its story the following day to include the news that John Ortberg’s publishers (Tyndale and Zondervan/HarperCollins) “will monitor” the unfolding investigation.

On July 13, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) renews its call for an “outside, secular investigation” into Menlo Church, and for the investigation to be voluntarily turned over to California Attorney General Xavier Becerra: “A secular investigation can help prevent a powerful leader such as Rev. John Ortberg from influencing the fact-finding and reporting. It is probably impossible for a father to be unbiased about his child. That Pastor Ortberg worked behind the scenes to protect his son seems likely to us as evidenced by the fact that no parents or children were interviewed in the initial investigation, and that the identity of the problematic volunteer was never revealed.”

Also on July 13, parents of children who played on Johnny Ortberg’s Ultimate Frisbee team speak out, holding John Ortberg and Menlo Church responsible for covering up and enabling Johnny’s unsupervised access to children in settings even outside the church.

Around this time, Johnny Ortberg directly emails members of the Red Dawn Ultimate Frisbee team, which comprises children as young as 13 and whom he had continued to coach even after disclosing to his father John Ortberg his attraction to children. The email (forwarded from Red Dawn on July 13) does not contain any specific refutations and only repeats the claim that his brother Daniel Lavery is wrong, as if to interfere with any investigations arising from BADA (Bay Area Disc Association). Furthermore, the email repeatedly emphasizes Johnny’s “love” for watching children develop, while at the same time indicating his conscious understanding that his direct email to the team members might be “sensitive,” “triggering,” and “painful”–inadvertent proof that Johnny has no idea what appropriate boundaries are with children.

On July 14, HuffPost publishes a report on the investigation and the subsequent, continuing dissatisfaction with Menlo Church’s actions. The report quotes a number of current and former members of Menlo Church, citing their concerns as members, parents, and volunteers who have worked in the church’s children and youth programs. The report also adds to the number of child-welfare experts and authorities who have spoken out about John Ortberg’s actions, citing Marci Hamilton, CEO of the child abuse prevention think tank Child USA, who holds that John Ortberg’s response to Johnny’s confession was “woefully deficient,” and that the investigation “fell so far below the minimum efforts needed to ensure children haven’t been abused that I wouldn’t call it an investigation.”

The HuffPost report also reveals that John Ortberg has seemingly retracted his earlier apology, believing that “he followed the correct course of action in protecting the confidentiality of his son from the authorities.” Furthermore, Ortberg continues to engage in falsehood by claiming that he “provided his son with referrals to clinical experts and Johnny Ortberg ‘has met regularly’ with one of them.” This is contradicted by the fact that it was Daniel Lavery, and not John Ortberg, who on November 18, 2019 first provided specialist referrals to Johnny, at which point Johnny had not yet seen a therapist.

On July 15, an open letter to the leadership of Menlo Church is published, calling on them for a completely new investigation, the removal of John Ortberg and the current elder board, and the implementation of a mandatory LGBTQIA+ training for staff, elders, and volunteers. The letter is written by Liz Lin, Stella Won Phelps, and Gloria Hu of the group Progressive Asian American Christians, and Pastor Nathan Roberts, Director of Community Engagement, First Lutheran Church of Columbia Heights, MN.

On the same day, evangelical Christians–including members of the Ortberg family–post comments on social media that equate the campaign to safeguard children at Menlo Church to “demonic warfare,” suggesting that trans people are demons to be cast out, or are demonically possessed. This continues throughout July, with Menlo Church’s official account “liking” a comment that reads, “I appreciate John Ortberg. The devil is a live [sic] and well.”

On July 16, an email Laura Turner wrote to a friend on July 7 surfaces, in which Turner writes that Johnny Ortberg’s relationship with her own young son “takes place only in the most appropriate contexts” and that she had “consulted with three different therapists” to determine appropriate boundaries for her child to have contact with Johnny, while having no objection to Johnny having unsupervised access to children at Menlo Church or elsewhere . This indicates that John Ortberg lied to RNS when he claimed that “no such restriction exists” with regards to Johnny spending time alone with his grandson.

On July 20, further evidence surfaces that suggests that John Ortberg lied when he told RNS the family “never considered [Johnny] a threat to himself.” In fact, the family repeatedly implied Johnny Ortberg was on the verge of suicide, evidenced by this message from Laura Turner to Alexis Coe on January 3:

Also on July 20, Eugene Lee, executive pastor at Menlo Church, despite earlier agreeing that John Ortberg should be fired, responds to congregation member Ruth Hutchins‘ repeated requests for transparency from church leadership by shutting down her requests in a further cover-up, arguing that “the questions you are asking are none of your business”:

On July 21, Betsy Phillips, member of the Menlo Church board of elders, writes to a congregant, explaining that the initial investigation engaged lawyer Fred W. Alvarez to conduct “forensic computer analysis which was used to search the relevant computer records and emails in the church.” Phillips further clarifies that it was the senior staff of the church and not Alvarez who interviewed current and former ministry leaders, further undermining the elders’ claim that it was an “independent investigation.”

On July 29, Menlo Church announces the retirement of John Ortberg, effective August 2. His resignation is reported by RNS, Christianity Today, The Washington Post, HuffPost, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Menlo’s Board of Elders publishes a statement announcing the decision, along with plans to bring in a transitional pastor and new elders, to invite oversight from the local ECO Bluewater Presbytery, and to form a new “advisory committee” to oversee a new “supplemental investigation.” Menlo Church also publishes Ortberg’s own statement of resignation.

Daniel and Grace Lavery publish the following statement on Twitter:

Aug 2020

On August 1, Johnny Ortberg comments publicly on Instagram, arguing that he should be allowed around children, and that he has been misrepresented. Grace Lavery responds, suggesting that Johnny seek legal counsel and reminding him that she and Daniel are prepared to defend in a courtroom their public statements regarding the allegations.

Contact

If you have information or concerns about matters related to Menlo Church, email menloallegations@gmail.com.

Media

A running list of news reports, statements, and opinions concerning the Menlo Church allegations and cover-up is available here.