March 3, 2020 ortberg

Thoughts on the Menlo Church Town Hall

Sunday’s Q&A was a bit less filtered than previous messages from the church. My overall impressions:

1. Menlo Church really doesn’t want you to know who their investigator was, which is too bad for them, because it’s already on Twitter: Fred Alvarez at Coblentz Law. Boz Tchividjian has a great summary of why a practicing attorney cannot be considered independent:

A fiduciary duty is a legal duty to act solely in another party’s interests. … For example, attorneys owe their clients a fiduciary duty. Thus, when a practicing attorney or law firm is hired to conduct the investigation, the institution is in the drivers seat and the process is not independent. An independent investigator has a fiduciary duty to the truth, regardless of where it may be found.

2. Beth Seabolt, in particular, showed bias. “You know we love you," she said to John at the Town Hall. Asked about Danny Lavery, she said he was “lashing out” and beginning his adult life angrily, as young people do, while avoiding using Danny’s pronouns. She said she identified with John and Nancy because she herself had had an estranged child. Beth was the lead for this entire affair—the chair of the elder board, part of the ethical misconduct subcommittee that handled this whole process, one of two elders authorized to select legal counsel for this process, and one of two elders authorized to select the investigator.

3. Menlo Church does not seem to understand pedophilia. In this Q&A, they revealed for the first time that the volunteer had been working with middle schoolers and high schoolers. Perhaps they’re thinking the students are not at significant risk because the complaint said the volunteer was attracted to young children. But those who work with sex offenders can attest that offenders will target whoever is available if their preferred age range is not; and middle schoolers start out quite young. I know from personal experience that volunteers in these ministries are frequently unsupervised by staff. Beth’s final answer compared pedophilia to OCD. “Doesn’t everyone have unwanted thoughts?” she said.

I had a meeting today to review the elder board meeting minutes. They were heavily redacted on advice of counsel. As is typical for this kind of thing, you are allowed to read the minutes by appointment, but you may not take notes or photographs or anything like that. The elders I spoke to were very kind and assured me they were happy I came in and welcomed transparency, while maintaining confidentiality of the volunteer, and their goal was that if all details of this process were made public, the congregation would agree they did the right thing.

When I first asked to review the investigation results, I was told that was not allowed because it would risk the privacy of the person who came for counseling. When I asked how long the person had been volunteering at Menlo Church, that too was unanswered because of the volunteer’s privacy. Who was the investigator? Not sharing that information. I asked if parents and volunteers were interviewed—that was a no. I asked if the volunteer’s identity was disclosed during the interviews—that was also a no, or at least, not always. Would Menlo Church have been equally secretive if the volunteer had been a nobody? Maybe, but it looks like this situation is getting special treatment because of the connection to John.

The leadership should have been asking: How can we make it absolutely clear that we will handle every situation with truth and transparency, no matter how beloved the accused or how unexpected the whistleblower? How can we show that we value and demand integrity from our leaders?

The answer is to bring in a credible third party investigator—one you aren’t ashamed to name—one like GRACE, that holds high standards and pulls no punches. They will probably need to reveal the volunteer’s name to a limited audience during the investigation. Child safety has to come above privacy, and unfortunately, this is necessary because the volunteer chose to work with minors without disclosing his/her situation. The investigator decides how much information is released to the public in the end.

And then you take the consequences of the truth.

It may well be that no children were harmed by this volunteer—I hope so. But there are still very serious concerns about John’s actions, and I’m surprised more people aren’t talking about them.

First and foremost, this person came to John for help. Why didn’t John help? It appears that John offered prayers and referrals for counseling, which the volunteer did not take because they were afraid of getting reported by a therapist. Why didn’t John try a little harder? While there is no cure, there are specialized treatment programs where the volunteer wouldn’t have to worry about getting reported. Pedophilia and treatment for pedophilia has been covered quite a bit in the media. Some pedophiles find medication combos that prevent or reduce the intrusive thoughts. Imagine how life-changing that could have been for this person!

I find it hard to believe John didn’t know about all this. Why—why didn’t John get this person real help? Why didn’t John exert all his persuasive power to get this person to therapy? How could he leave this person to struggle alone, trying to “self-treat” by volunteering with minors? What could John care about more than this person’s well-being? John didn’t advise this person to stop volunteering—instead he encouraged it to continue for nearly a year and a half.

This person is in a terrible situation right now. I’m amazed the elder board is willing to let John include “mentorship” as one of his new focus areas after failing this person so badly.

Second, once this affair was discovered by Danny Lavery, John did exert his persuasive power—to try to convince Danny to keep quiet. I understand this is not a criminal matter or even a workplace misconduct matter. But it is a moral and ethical matter, and the church should care. This is their lead pastor. It’s not simply “poor judgment.”

Edited 3/5 with direct link to investigator, since the Twitter link was not working for some readers.