Based on my last emails from the elders, the Town Halls in March, and Menlo Church’s behavior since then (John Ortberg has preached all services and hosted special guests Condoleezza Rice and Max Lucado), I’m getting the distinct vibe that the church has moved on. I wrote my letter to the editor in the Almanac back when I had hope the church might still bring in a qualified, unbiased third party. That hope seems dead now.
I hope that any parents remaining at Menlo Church will read carefully the full Q&As from the first and second Town Halls. Compare the two Q&As and you’ll see where the church was reciting a prepared response and where the question was unexpected and so the response was off the cuff. Pay attention to where questions are sidestepped or summarized instead of read verbatim. I wrote up some initial thoughts on the first town hall and, having had time to digest both, I’m sad to see enormous red flags at Menlo Church.
The church is taking a dangerous and unscientific stance in downplaying and minimizing the seriousness of pedophilia.
Beth Seabolt is an O.D. and a mandated reporter, and John has a degree in clinical psychology, so I find it hard to believe they are both ignorant on this matter. Yet Beth implied pedophilia was similar to OCD when explaining why the church was protecting the volunteer. She downplayed the seriousness of deviant sexual thoughts about children, saying, “Doesn’t every one of us have unwanted thoughts?" (She’s not the only Menlo leader to say something similar to me.)
“You do not report somebody for disclosing secret thoughts," said John Ortberg, defending why he did not tell anyone that a person with pedophilia was volunteering with the youth.
Pedophilia is a serious psychiatric condition. “Pedophilia is defined as recurrent and intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children—generally age 13 years or younger—over a period of at least six months." It is a paraphilia that is intrinsically risky to children. It is nothing like OCD or ordinary unwanted thoughts. There is no cure, but with professional therapy and support, someone with this condition may be able to avoid committing offenses (contact and non-contact) against children.
“The volunteer didn’t do anything wrong,” Menlo Church keeps repeating. That is not true. The volunteer admitted he has had pedophilia his whole life. He had no business volunteering with youth, just as an alcoholic should not work in a bar. I’m sure he was aware that if the church found out, they would stop him from volunteering. That’s lying by omission.
The church’s actions have not shown child safety or transparency as a priority. The leadership promised multiple times to answer questions, but my questions have been met with stonewalling. Their emails and actions have been precisely what you would expect from an organization trying to protect the reputation of its popular senior pastor and avoid liability.
Had Menlo wanted to demonstrate an objective commitment to truth, they could have:
Notified the congregation at the start of the investigation and asked for input, instead of keeping the entire affair hidden until they had completed their investigation—conducted secretly under attorney-client privilege.
Chosen an investigator with a proven track record in defending victims of child abuse and released the findings to the congregation, instead of choosing an employment attorney with a fiduciary duty to the church and refusing to release the investigation report.
Disclosed that John had a conflict of interest that led to hiding this volunteer’s situation, instead of making it seem like John was approached by a random congregant and had no ongoing relationship.
Communicated the general nature of the risk, including the gender and age group at risk, instead of keeping written communication vague. People make assumptions—usually wrong ones—and then information pertinent to the investigation is lost.
Demonstrated an understanding of child sex abuse and included enough information to dispel some myths, instead of propagating them.
Demonstrated an understanding of pedophilia and that it requires professional intervention, instead of trying to play this off as “unwanted thoughts,” which everyone has. John Ortberg claimed that he was “absolutely certain” that no children were at risk.
Used this as a teachable moment and demonstrated care for victims of sexual abuse by devoting sermon time to the topic, instead of avoiding the issue as much as possible on Sundays in the rush to move on.
If the church had been coming from that mindset, their responses would have looked very different. DEAR MENLO CHURCH COMMUNITY, the email might have started…
You may be wondering why John’s sermon last weekend was suddenly canceled, and we must share with you some troubling news. We have just found out that someone who has worked with our middle and high school boys for many years has been struggling with a persistent sexual attraction to young boys. John is on leave because he failed to disclose this risk to children and a conflict of interest. We do not have any allegations of abuse at this time, but this person is no longer volunteering with us. We have begun an investigation.
Pedophilia is a condition where an adult or older teenager is intensely and exclusively or primarily sexually aroused by prepubescent children. This attraction is generally lifelong and it is not a choice. There is no cure, but with specialized support and therapy, it can be managed to avoid harming any children. If you are struggling with this condition, we want you to know Menlo is a place where you can receive help finding qualified care. However, it was unacceptable for someone with this condition to volunteer with children or youth, and it was unacceptable for John to fail to report this once he knew. When you entrust your child to our care, you should never have to wonder if your child’s leader sees them in a sexual light.
Menlo Church cares deeply about keeping your children safe. We background check all volunteers and our policy prohibits adult volunteers from being alone with a child at any time. But a background check doesn’t catch everything, and it’s impossible for staff to supervise all volunteers at all times, particularly on trips and retreats. In addition, there are many ways to abuse without being alone in person. That is why we have brought in ____ to investigate this situation. You can see their record of work with churches and child abuse cases (here). ____ is not under any kind of attorney-client relationship with the church—their sole duty is to the truth and to the safety of children. Investigating possible child abuse is a complicated, time-consuming process because of the layers of deception, shame, and fear involved. ____ will keep you updated on their progress and release a report of their findings when they are finished.
We want to make it clear to everyone in the Menlo community that we take all offenses against children, including non-contact offenses, very seriously. Non-contact sexual offenses include possession of child exploitation material, voyeurism, and sexting. Grooming, which means gaining a child’s trust in order to secure future sexual gratification, is also illegal. In addition to being sinful, these are crimes which must be reported to law enforcement. Whether or not a crime is involved, the following behaviors are unacceptable at Menlo:
- Blurring teacher-student boundaries
- Giving disproportional gifts or special attention
- Exchanging photos, particularly in swimwear or while partially dressed
- Conducting frequent or intense private conversations, either in person or online, especially covering sexual topics such as masturbation or pornography
If you have ever observed anything like this between any child and a Menlo leader, on or off our campus, we need your input. Please reach out to ____ immediately.
We hope and pray that no children were harmed and that one day we can look back on this time as a wake-up call. We are kicking off a four-week series about abuse and how we can be a community that is safe for victims of abuse to receive care and healing. Jesus cares deeply about children and so do we. We will be hosting special guests Boz Tchividjian and Jimmy Hinton. You won’t want to miss it! It might be the most important sermon series you’ve ever heard.
Menlo Church Leadership Team
“We believe the church is very healthy,” said the elders at the second Town Hall. But take a look at Menlo Church’s Glassdoor reviews from exited employees and you will see a very different story. Most churches have very few reviews, and usually they are positive. By contrast, Menlo’s many reviews—almost all from before this pedophilia episode—contain words like toxic, dysfunctional, power-hungry, narcissistic, and sociopathic. There is a polarization between current and former employees, and that is a red flag.
When asked about John’s new role at the second Town Hall, the elders wanted to be clear that John’s new role was not a demotion and had nothing to do with discipline. The upcoming restructuring of the entire Menlo Church organization, they said, was about “leveraging John’s giftedness,” finding the “best possible role for John,” and then “building around” him. Why is the church revolving so tightly around John?
John’s “restoration plan” involved John speaking one-on-one and in small groups with the elders, staff, and other unspecified members of the congregation. The elders said by the end of the month, everyone agreed that they believed John, they forgave John, and they were ready to move forward with John.
John was and is in a position of spiritual and/or professional authority over these people, and John is a nationally acclaimed speaker and writer. His “restoration” was… talking to everyone until they agreed to give him his job back? If someone didn’t get on board, would they be branded “unforgiving” and a blocker to reconciliation? But what else can they do—leave?
In my early years at Menlo, a few strange things happened and I paid them very little attention. The church hired someone to co-lead with John; he stayed for a couple years; it was not particularly clear what he was doing; and then he left. John took on his responsibilities. Then they hired someone to help with execution—she also stayed a short time and then left. At the time, I assumed this was because managing multi-sites is like herding cats and no one wanted to do it, or maybe the housing market was too insane. But now, looking back… I have to wonder.
“It’s not our goal to hide truth," Menlo Church elder board chair Beth Seabolt said at the first Town Hall. “It is our goal to avoid causing unnecessary anxiety.”
Being informed of the risk in a situation like this—where a person attracted to boys is also in a position of authority over them and has opportunities to travel overnight with them—is not “unnecessary anxiety." John Ortberg might insist there was no risk, but he’s biased. Parents had a right to be fully aware of the risk their children were exposed to, and without that awareness, assurances that “no allegations were found” are meaningless. If your son attended the Menlo Park middle school or high school youth program over the past ~10 years, and if his group leader was someone close to John Ortberg, I think the church owes you answers. Menlo Church should have given you a copy of their investigation report. In fact, you should have been interviewed.
Most victims of child sexual abuse tell no one for years, decades, or even a lifetime. If any children were harmed in this scenario, they would be in their mid-twenties at the oldest by now, so based on average time-to-report delays, it is quite possible they have never told anybody. Why would they start with the church’s lawyer? Were they even asked?
I hope whistleblowers from inside Menlo come forward. 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? Outsiders see very clearly what’s going on here.
If you don’t feel comfortable publishing yourself, you can contact me and I can post for you anonymously. (If you have written to me before about this, please write again.) My inbox is open to anyone who wants to talk in good faith.