July 6, 2020 ortberg culture

Accountability and Menlo Church

The alleged Ortberg coverup at Menlo Church has finally hit the news.

Whenever someone is forced to go public in holding a church accountable, they immediately receive pushback: “Why are you attacking the church? This is our home—it’s supposed to be your home—why are you tearing it down?”

I don’t think anyone should consider a human institution their home. Christians, of all people, should know that the Bible teaches faith in God, not in men who claim to represent God. Jesus took strong action when men who cared more about money than caring for the flock were taking over the temple. Accountability is not attack.

I started posting about Menlo on this blog only because private accountability had been rejected. This accountability is for Menlo Church, not against it. I wrote a few months ago:

It is hard to cause pain to a church body you love, but, like surgery or chemotherapy, sometimes pain is necessary for healing. So many thousands of people are trusting Menlo Church and being misled. Is it loving to leave Menlo to spend its future in image repair mode? Is Menlo safe for victims, should something develop in the future?

The story at Menlo Church is not about me, and I would have preferred to share my story privately with my friends. However, I think this information may be helpful to those struggling to process what’s been happening.

I want to say up front: I believe that many of the people involved in this matter are kind, well-meaning people. The elders held information very close-to-chest, and church people tend to be trusting. It is hard to imagine that people you have trusted for a long time would withhold information this serious; therefore, it’s easier to believe the allegations must be false. Please be kind to Menlo Church congregants who are confused and uncertain, not knowing who to believe.

i.

Back in November 2019, John was slated to give a sermon at the end of a series. What I heard was that it was postponed and he would still give it later. But a few weeks went by and he didn’t give it. Then in the December newsletter, the church finally said he was actually on leave, and that someone else would be giving the Christmas sermon. (Side note: for churches like Menlo, Christmas and Easter are huge Sundays for attendance—this was very unusual.) I wrote about this earlier:

When I received the December email which finally admitted that John was on leave, I immediately checked Daniel Lavery’s social media. I knew Daniel had transitioned the year before, so I assumed there might be something going on with that. Instead, I found Danny’s posts about estrangement from his family over discovering “something” that he could not live with.

My reaction was, “There’s a pedophile in the family and John is protecting him. Danny has disowned them over it, and John is on leave to try to reconcile with him and/or process the loss.” It sounded sad and I hoped the family could resolve the issue. I also hoped that some form of justice would take place with respect to the pedophile, even though I knew it wasn’t likely.

Then in January, we got the bombshell email from the elders revealing that John had been on leave due to an investigation of a complaint. And the pedophile wasn’t just family (that still seemed the most likely) but also someone who had volunteered with kids at our church. If you’re interested, you can check out @jdahlmd’s work on analyzing statements for image repair. I’ll just say the elder statement was a textbook example, if you knew to look.

On Sunday, John’s statement made things worse. John said sorry, yes. But mostly he was sorry it was putting a “burden” on the staff; he was sorry it was affecting the church’s reputation. And there was zero mention of Danny. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a clearer example of I’m sorry I got caught.

Given the timing, it was fairly clear that Danny was the third party who had come to the church. I really hoped the church was only misstepping out of ignorance—elders are laypeople and have no expertise in handling possible sexual abuse—and I thought they might take corrective action if appealed to. I felt it was a conversation that might go better in person, so I wrote to them to try to schedule a meeting:

Dear Beth,

My husband [REDACTED] and I are members at the Mountain View campus and after reading the email from the Elders a couple week and hearing John’s statement last weekend, we still have many questions. Is there a good time we could meet, either in person or over a phone call? I know you must have a lot of demands on your time right now. Would it help for me to send you questions ahead of time?

Thank you, Ruth and [REDACTED] Hutchins

The response was:

Hi Ruth,

The email went to 17,000 people, so I hope you can understand that I am not conducting individual meetings right now.

One observation I have is that almost all the answers are in the original email and people have missed the content. If you send your questions, I’ll do my best to give you a timely answer.

Warm regards,

Beth

Okay, I guess? None of my questions were answered in the email, but anyway, I wrote in some initial questions. I had many more, but I was advised not to go overboard.

Hi Beth, no worries, I completely understand. I offered in case it would be your preference. My most pressing questions are these:

  1. The email said an independent investigation was engaged around the time of John going on leave in November 2019.
    a. Who was the independent investigator retained?
    b. Was this entity retained by Menlo, ECO, or someone else?
    c. What was the scope of the investigation?
    d. When did this investigation begin?
    e. When did the investigation complete, if it is complete? How many hours were spent?
    f. Will the investigation results be available for review?

  2. The email mentions interviews with Menlo supervising staff but not interviews with volunteers or parents.
    a. Were any parents interviewed by the investigator?
    b. Were all parents whose children were in the affected age groups informed of the potential risk (without naming names)?
    c. Were they given information on signs to observe in their children and/or information on how to speak to children about this issue?

  3. The email said Menlo was approached by a third party and John was subsequently put on leave on Nov 22.
    a. When did the third party contact Menlo?
    b. Is it true that this person first told John he should disclose what he knew to the church and John refused?
    c. If so, what was John’s reasoning?
    d. Did the person who came to John have a preexisting relationship with John and share this information as a peer? Or was John acting in a clergy/counselor role?
    e. Did John not advise this person to stop serving with children?

My main concern is this: if John could make a mistake in judgement like this, who else would make the same mistake? One thing that would greatly put my mind at ease would be if Menlo got a GRACE Child Safeguarding Certification and worked with a GRACE consultant on next steps: https://www.netgrace.org/safeguarding-certification [ed: now https://www.netgrace.org/safeguarding-initiative]

GRACE is the best in this area and if we are following recommendations from a GRACE consultation, I will feel confident we’re doing as much as we can.

Thank you, Ruth and [REDACTED] Hutchins

This was all before Daniel made his February statement, and I do wonder whether that was a factor in my getting several answers from them:

Hi Ruth,

I will attempt to answer many of your questions.

The investigator was a private, third party investigator, retained by Menlo Church. I must say I was highly impressed with his expertise and professionalism. He was thorough and didn’t hold back from asking tough and thorough questions. He interviewed multiple parties to find inconsistencies, biases, justifications, anything not revealed to the Board. We are pleased that the investigation found no misconduct or allegations of misconduct.

The Board started immediately and we were able to commence the investigation about 10 days after we heard from the third party that there was a volunteer with unwanted thoughts of sexual attraction to minors. The investigation results are not available for review because this would risk the privacy of the person who came for counseling. Parents and volunteers were not interviewed. All parents who have children registered in our programs (I believe that is a requirement before parents can leave them during any service) were notified by the previous email you received. This was sent on the day following the email to the broader congregation. Parents were invited to reach out to Sue Kim-Ahn or staff in Kids or Students for more information.

The third party notified Menlo Church Thursday evening, November 21 and John was put on leave Friday morning, November 22 until the completion of the investigation. John referred the volunteer to have outside counseling but did not ask the volunteer to stop serving with Kids/Students.

Ruth, you are the second or third person to recommend the GRACE certification. I will review this with our ministry leaders and see if we can get that in place.

Thank you for reaching out with questions, sharing your concerns, and sharing the suggestion of GRACE.

Warm regards,

Beth

Unfortunately, these answers were not particularly reassuring. Parents and volunteers were not interviewed? Parents were not even notified until after the investigation was over? That didn’t sound like any kind of credible investigation to me. What kind of investigator would do this?

But more troubling was the questions they chose not to answer:

ii.

And then Daniel Lavery made his February statement.

So yes, family. Who else would tell both John and Danny? And the elder board was deliberately sidestepping questions about John’s personal conflict of interest and conscious decision to hide this from the church.

I wrote back:

Hi Beth,

Thanks for your prompt response! I appreciate that the elder board acted so swiftly. Can you share who the investigator was? What training or expertise does he have in the psychology of pedophilia and child sexual abuse? How long had the person been serving in Menlo Kids before speaking to John in July 2018?

Ruth

Beth responded:

Ruth,

We are not sharing the name of the investigator. But I can tell you the investigator is nationally respected.

We have full records of the time the volunteer served at Menlo Church. We are protecting any additional information to protect the privacy of the volunteer who came for counseling.

Again, we are pleased that there were no findings of misconduct or allegations of misconduct.

Beth

This was the second time Beth referred to the volunteer as someone “who came for counseling” and the second time she cited the need to protect this person’s privacy. (But according to Daniel, the volunteer did not simply come to John for counseling; he had lost his laptop and was afraid the police might find it.)

I wrote to her that it was essential to share the investigator and if not, at the very least share the investigator’s qualifications and the scope of the investigation:

Dear Beth,

I understand your perspective, but unfortunately saying “there were no findings of misconduct” means very little without knowing who the investigator was and how they investigated. What is your reasoning for hiding the investigator?

If you still think you can’t share the investigator, then can you at least answer some questions about why I should trust the results of this investigation? You already said that parents and volunteers were not interviewed. You already said that parents of children in this person’s classroom(s) were not notified separately that their children in particular had been at risk.

  1. What is the investigator’s experience with cases of pedophilia/CSA?

  2. Did the investigator interview the third party who reported to you?

  3. Did the investigator interview supervisors/peers of this person at other organizations where this person has worked with children?

If your private investigator does not specialize in pedophilia/CSA, please get a consultant who does – I recommend Jimmy Hinton: https://jimmyhinton.org/speaking/.

I really hope we can get this right as a church.

Ruth

Beth’s response was to refuse to answer any more questions and send me over to Marketing & Communications:

Hi Ruth,

I cannot answer any more of your questions on this topic and would like you to direct them to hholiday@menlo.church.

For all the resources you are sending to create a stronger, healthier Menlo Church, I am most grateful.

Warm regards,

Beth

They never did engage Jimmy Hinton or GRACE*. I went ahead and contacted Marketing & Communications to get the official answer:

Hi Heather,

I have a few questions about the recent news that I hope you can help me with. I know the recent emails from the church said that an investigation found no misconduct, however, after Willow Creek, I feel it’s my duty to verify. As a preface, I don’t want to know anything about the identity of this volunteer - my concern is child safety.

1- What group conducted the investigation? (So I can verify that they are independent and qualified to handle the complex psychology of pedophilia/child sexual abuse)

2- What was the scope of the investigation? (Was the third party who reported to Menlo interviewed? Was the volunteer’s non-Menlo work with children evaluated? Did the investigation solicit feedback from parents/volunteers who had been in the room(s) affected over the years? Basically: given our attendance records & other info about children this volunteer worked with, what steps were taken to verify that none of the children on this list were affected?)

A redacted copy of the investigation summary report would probably answer all my questions.

Thanks in advance,
Ruth

Side note: I detest it when churches make innocent marketing people play the public-facing role in scandals. Her name showed up in the first round of news articles about this story, even though she likely was not informed of the full extent of what was going on. When these things happen, churches should always protect their staff by hiring a third party.

The official response was:

Hi Ruth,

A third-party investigator had full, independent license to pursue misconduct information related to our shared concerns and conducted as thorough a process as deemed necessary. Based on that investigation, interviews with supervising staff across Student’s and Children’s ministries, and a review of detailed volunteer records, the Board has not found any misconduct in the Menlo Church community, and the investigation did not reveal any allegations of misconduct. As the investigation was led by a third-party, and due to the subject matter of the investigation, further details are confidential at this point.

Thanks,
Heather

What exactly does “our shared concerns” mean? As thorough a process “as deemed necessary”? Based on what expertise? As we know, the investigator was a nationally-respected employment lawyer who works for employers. What does he know about a child sexual abuse investigation? I wrote back:

Heather, identifying the investigator is the bare minimum for the process to be credible. There are no good reasons to hide this - only bad ones. Menlo has been my church home for over ten years and I’m praying that this is only a communications hiccup and not something deeper.

Ruth

(I never got a response.)

iii.

The next day, Daniel posted Thoughts on a Phone Call. Several news sources had run stories since his first statement as well. But that Sunday at church…. nothing. No response. No reference to it, apart from an announcement of an upcoming prayer meeting.

That week, I spoke to two pastors in person. I told them both two things:

Speaking to two people was helpful because when I heard very closely repeated ideas and phrases, I could infer that these were from a common source. Both pastors told me that Danny has a way with words, and we don’t know how much of his statement is true. Both said they believed at least one part of it was false, specifically, the claim that John encouraged the volunteer’s work with minors. One said he did not believe John would do something like that, and the other said John had explicitly told him he did not. Both pastors said we don’t know what really went on in that phone call.

I also heard that the church didn’t want to call attention to the matter by making a response to Daniel and the recent news. One was troubled by this, because the congregation was confused and hurting, and he believed there was a duty of pastoral care to engage. I got the sense that people internally were unwilling to even look at Danny’s website (but I brought printouts).

Afterward, one pastor followed up to let me know that he had passed my suggestion of GRACE along to the elders, but they had said there was a concern with a conflict of interest because of his connection to John and Nancy. I wrote back with what Boz had written: that GRACE would be able to help Menlo find a suitable independent investigator. I don’t know if he passed it along.

iv.

After those meetings, I started this blog and my timeline. From what they had said, it was clear the church was not ever planning to keep the congregation informed, so someone had to do it.

Since both pastors seemed to be largely in the dark about the important issues—neither pastor knew who the investigator was, or the details of the scope of the investigation, or what was in Danny’s report to the church—I wrote to the elders again, asking specifically about Danny’s statement:

Dear Session,

I’ve spoken this week to my campus pastor (cc’d), but unfortunately he didn’t have much concrete information. John said that the purpose of this restoration period is so that we can ask every question needed to rebuild trust. Therefore, I’m writing to you again.

Daniel Lavery has made serious allegations about John, first privately to you on Nov 21, and as of Feb 2, publicly. These allegations go well past what was in the Jan 21 email and include:

A. That the volunteer was working with children specifically because of his or her attraction to children

B. That the volunteer’s work with children (at another organization) involved overnight travel

C. That John was aware of both A and B

D. That John and the volunteer spoke “often and candidly”

E. That when asked on Nov 15, 2019, John did not know whether or not the volunteer had stopped overnight travel with children

F. That the volunteer did not go for therapy and John knew this

G. That John told Daniel that pedophilia is like homosexuality

H. That John told Daniel the volunteer’s situation needed to be kept secret, including from the church

I. That John (through intermediaries) told Daniel the volunteer might commit suicide if Daniel told the church

J. That John was asked to disclose this situation to the church and he would not

I’d like to know why these allegations weren’t mentioned in the Jan 21 email to the church? Do you contest any of these allegations? Which one(s) and on what grounds? I asked you about this last allegation in my original set of questions and you wouldn’t answer it then. Will you answer it now? Why didn’t John disclose the situation to the church himself?

Thank you,
Ruth Hutchins

They wouldn’t answer—although they seemed to think they had?

Hi Ruth,

To answer your question, “Why didn’t John disclose the situation to the church himself?”

John exercised poor judgment in not disclosing the situation to Menlo Church and when the elders learned of this, they immediately put John on leave, asked the volunteer to stop serving at any Menlo events, and started an investigation.

I believe that actually answers the majority of your questions.

Warm regards,

Beth

Actually, it answered none of my questions, so I asked again:

I’m sorry, could you please be clear? Are Danny Lavery’s allegations A-I true?

At which point, I was again passed over to Marketing & Communications:

Ruth,

Please reach out to Heather Holiday at hholiday@menlo.church with your additional questions.

Beth

I replied (and cc’d a pastor), but of course I didn’t get a response:

I’m hurt and disappointed by how Menlo is handling this. This kind of stonewalling is not right.

Anyway, I asked the same questions to Marketing & Communications and got:

Hi Ruth,

Thanks for your message and concern with this issue. At this point, Menlo Church has shared all information it can related to this matter. Any updates will be shared with the entire congregation.

Thanks,

Heather

I wrote back:

Thank you. When will the next congregational update be?

I didn’t get a response. The next update was the email announcing that the church was very pleased with John’s restoration progress and planned to have him return to the pulpit soon.

v.

I really want to emphasize how the pastors I spoke to didn’t seem to be informed about what was going on. They seemed to be trusting the elders and not outside sources. I did not get the impression that the pastors were covering up.

After the announcement of John’s return, I found out about the upcoming Town Halls. I think it was actually someone on Twitter who pointed me to them, so I dropped everything to attend. They said they were taking online questions, so I submitted several; however, at the actual Town Hall, they only answered questions written on cards in person.

Online questions received responses via email afterward—some of them, at least. Like this one, which I admit was probably too emotional, but I was upset:

How can you put Menlo Church in this position? This is not good stewardship. ******’s name will come out and then it will be obvious why John was protecting him and why you are protecting both of them. All that needs to happen next is for a victim to come forward and the church will be ruined, and rightly so. How can you take that risk in good conscience?

Response:

Hi Ruth,

Thank you for sharing your sentiments again.

Warm regards,

Beth Seabolt

I submitted other questions, which did not get responses. I’ve already posted the Town Hall notes, so I’ll just link to them again: Town Hall #1, Town Hall #2.

vi.

In between all this, I was trying to schedule a meeting to review the Board’s meeting notes. Per the bylaws, members of the church have the right to do this. The church only allows reviewing the notes in person, and you are not allowed to photograph them or take notes. I finally had this meeting the week after the first Town Hall. I was hoping to confirm the investigator.

I was surprised to find an elder there who wanted to talk to me and answer questions. We joked about how he’d drawn the short straw. He wanted to talk to me about why the volunteer’s name shouldn’t be public. “We all have embarassing thoughts we wouldn’t want to be public,” he began. I stopped him. I told him I wasn’t here to find the volunteer’s name and I wasn’t asking the church to broadcast it. He seemed surprised.

The meeting minutes were heavily redacted—“on advice of counsel,” as the elder told me. Very little about the situation was left in. However, I was able to clarify a few matters.

The elder told me that they believed they had handled the situation well. They said they welcomed transparency and believed if all details were made public, people would agree they did the right thing.

vii.

After the meeting, I sent a follow-up email:

Hi [REDACTED], thanks for meeting today. I wish I’d known you would be there; I would have come with questions prepared. As I said, I am not looking for the identity of the volunteer. My concerns are with John’s actions: first and foremost, his actions toward the volunteer, which I do not agree constituted good therapy, and second toward Danny Lavery. I am also concerned with how the church’s actions and messages are being perceived, regardless of good intentions. Of course, the minutes were heavily redacted, so there was not much information there. I would welcome a chance to speak to John and hear more specifically why the church does not believe Danny Lavery.

Please note that I did not promise to protect the volunteer’s identity in my email, or when I spoke to them. Here was the response I got:

Ruth,

Thank you for taking the time to come by the church office yesterday. It was good to meet [REDACTED]- he is such a precious gift with a great smile. As we discussed, as elders we, like you, take very seriously our obligations to the safety and security of all the members of our congregation and seekers, especially families with children and those whose lives have been touched by abuse or misconduct. We’re also pleased that you agree to protect the identity of the volunteer. That seems like a lot to agree on.

As it relates to your continued queries around John and his handling of the volunteer or his relationship with Danny - those are not topics on which we or John have anything further to share. As for the court of public opinion, we are confident that we’ve been as transparent as is wise informed by counsel, and accept that some will inevitably try to twist, criticize, and/or misconstrue whatever we say based on their own agenda or perspectives.

We are grateful for the volunteer work and contributions that your family has brought to Menlo in Mountain View and are hopeful that the answers we have been able to share respectfully and lovingly will be sufficient for you to process these events and move on, even if we end up agreeing to disagree on a few points.

Best,

[REDACTED], elder

Interestingly, while my request for a meeting with John was denied, personal meetings with John were offered in the church email yesterday. At the same time, I got a response to an email I had sent previously:

Subject: Please answer the question yes or no

Did John know the volunteer was trying to treat his pedophilia by volunteering with teenagers?
Did John encourage this volunteering?

Response:

No and no.

The elected elder board worked tirelessly to balance John’s time of repentance, restoration, and return. While we are aware that the time frame or decision making will not be pleasing to everyone, the bulk of our feedback is delight and relief that John is returning to the pulpit.

The Elder Board

I took these two messages as a fairly final, “We’re done with your questions.” Notice the elected elder board was satisfied that the bulk of our feedback is delight and relief. The message I heard was: “You’re outvoted.”

Anyway, now that the truth is beginning to come out—and I have no doubt there is much more that hasn’t yet been reported on—we will see if that delight and relief remains.


* Edited Jul 21: In more recent communications, the elders have said they have reached out to GRACE.