July 11, 2020 ortberg culture

Truth First

One enormous piece of cognitive dissonance right now for the staff and congregation at Menlo is how to reconcile what they thought they knew about their senior pastor and elder board and what they are discovering, now that the cold hard facts are spreading. The brain rebels. It implores the thinker to stop disrupting the worldview that has made sense until now. It comes up with rationalizations, justifications, for why this new information should be rejected.

Many Christians believe that a church leader—someone believed to have a strong spiritual life—would never lie. God is a God of truth, right? That’s what we’re taught. Surely our leaders would live that out.

We must let go of that naivete. Christian leaders do hide the truth. Like anybody, they do it for a reason—either fear of consequences, or because they’ve convinced themselves that in this case, it’s actually right to do so.

This doesn’t make them evil. It just makes them human.

i.

On Monday, RNS delivered official confirmation from the church of what I have known partially and suspected since February:

And the investigator did have ties to the church: Alvarez worked closely for years with Rico Rosales at Wilson Sonsini; Rosales allegedly did pro bono legal work for the church, and his wife was an elder with Beth Seabolt in 2018.

Yet the elders told me their investigator had zero prior connection to the church. Looking back through the emails and town halls, it’s clear that the Elders were telling the “truth” only on the flimsiest of technicalities.

For the past several months, the elders have been repeatedly telling the staff and congregation that a “third-party, independent investigation” found “no misconduct or allegations of misconduct.” The Elders went out of their way to make it sound like they had selected a qualified party who prioritized child safety and ensured all allegations were investigated thoroughly. At the Town Halls, the Elders claimed they’d done a “thorough” investigation by a “very well-received investigator” who did “outstanding work” and “dove into everything”. They said that as a result they felt “very very confident” when the investigation was done.

Let’s not quibble about why these might be technically true from a certain point of view. Most people did not notice the subtle qualifiers the elders used in their phrasings. Most people did not think to ask whether the investigator was a child sex abuse expert. The congregation trusted the Elders to be honest with them—and they were not.

On Monday, despite their “thorough” “independent” investigation claims being debunked, the elder board and John Ortberg doubled down:

When I met with the elders in March, they told me there was no particular reason they were refusing to share the investigator’s name. What seems more likely is they hid the investigator precisely because they knew the congregation would be outraged if they found out.

ii.

I don’t believe people hide for no reason. The elder board must have believed there was a reason to run such a cursory investigation, one so important it was worth doing so and then hiding it.

When I asked an elder why the board had selected this investigator, they told me that the complaint they received had “layers” and so they chose someone for “investigative skill” and not a child sex abuse specialty.

Uh huh.

Here’s what I think happened—although this is only speculation. The Elder Board knew that if the volunteer’s name were to get out, it would be a serious blow to the church, and to John. Perhaps they didn’t trust Daniel because of his transition. Perhaps they believed John’s judgment when he said he believed the volunteer had never harmed anyone. Perhaps they believed that this was a family matter. Perhaps they believed John didn’t deserve to have his career destroyed over a problem with his children. In any case, it was essential that the investigator not talk to volunteers, parents, and kids. “Two may keep a secret if one of them is dead”—any kind of real community investigation would leak the volunteer’s ID.

Edit(8/31): I retract this speculation based on the Elder Board’s statement in the 8/30 Town Hall that “because of the family dynamics that we were aware of, we knew that this would eventually come out.” I believe this was the truth. The question of why they chose to do such an inadequate investigation remains open.

iii.

RNS has reported that John and the Ortberg family encouraged the volunteer’s work as a high school ultimate frisbee coach regularly.

But it doesn’t stop there. Not only did John encourage the volunteer in his work with high school students, this volunteering was encouraged because it was believed to be therapeutic, according to multiple sources who spoke directly to the Ortberg family:

John denies all this, of course. Who would admit it? I’m fairly certain he denied it to staff internally before telling the rest of the congregation—and I think it was part of why Menlo did not trust or act on Daniel’s February statement. When John denied it publicly in March, he chose his words carefully:

“I did not encourage a volunteer to seek to treat their condition by seeking unsupervised access with minors."

Perhaps this was some kind of word game over the meaning of “treatment” or “encourage” or “unsupervised” or some combination thereof. In any case, it was deceptive.

The vast majority of non-pedophiles feel that pedophiles should not work with children, ever, even if they sincerely and truly believe they will never molest a child. The reasons why John would deceive here are obvious: the average follower, even one willing to give John a lot of grace, would feel encouraging work with minors—believing it therapeutic, even—was a step too far.

v.

But why would John think this in the first place, and feel so certain about it he also felt justified in hiding it? It makes no sense until you take into account the next part of Daniel’s disclosure—which, again, John is denying.

Daniel Lavery says both the volunteer and John Ortberg used the term “virtuous pedophile” to describe the volunteer. This is an online group, founded in 2012, that advocates for compassion and de-stigmatization of pedophilia as a mental state but does not support the normalization of real life pedophilic acts as many other pedophile advocacy groups do.

The Virtuous Pedophiles philosophy on its surface explains everything about John Ortberg’s decisions:

But in addition to Daniel’s testimony and the way the group’s philosophy explains John’s actions, think about this: if he did not believe the volunteering was safe and beneficial, why would he allow it at all? By any other framework, even pure self-interest, he should have put a stop to it. Even after being reinstated, he has continued to insist that there wasn’t risk and he was “absolutely certain” the volunteer had never and would never harm anyone.

It’s understandable that John Ortberg denied mentioning Virtuous Pedophiles to RNS. It’s understandable that John did not mention them to Menlo. To do so would invite serious blowback.

Tell the truth, John. If you want to go there, have the guts to stand by it.

vi.

Daniel Lavery said in his June 28 statement:

When my parents learned I intended to inform the church staff in November, they sent my wife a message through a third party that my brother was suicidal at the thought of being unable to volunteer with children. Rather than seeking medical attention for him, they wanted me to promise not to say anything, and to imply that I would be responsible for his suicide in the event that I reported.

RNS reported, “John Ortberg has denied this allegation, saying he has never considered his son a threat to himself or others.”

Family friend Nicole Cliffe responded, “It’s unfathomable to me that John Ortberg would claim via email that he has never considered his son a harm ‘to himself’ in addition to others. The possibility of self-harm and the underlying threat was raised in every phone call. With John, with Laura, certainly with Johnny.”

It’s understandable why he won’t admit to this. First, even ardent fans will likely see it as profoundly abusive and immoral to wield a brother’s potential suicide as an emotional cudgel against someone. Second, it would call his mandatory reporting spiel into question—he told the congregation on March 1 that his responsibilities could have been triggered if he thought there was “a reasonable suspicion they might harm themselves, or others, or be a danger to children or elders.”

vii.

When Daniel first reported to the church in Nov 2019, he wrote:

But two incidents give me further pause, both of which are known to my parents. The first concerns the circumstances of his first disclosing this condition to my parents. The reason he gave them at the time was that he had lost his laptop and was afraid that it might be found by police. Why would he have had such a fear unless the laptop contained incriminating materials?

An anonymous commenter on RNS responded to this allegation on Monday:

That’s false, actually. The laptop was recovered before he disclosed. Additionally, he had filed a police report on the laptop, which he obviously wouldn’t do if there was incriminating evidence on it. …If you’re blindly trusting everything you read on social media, you are badly misinformed on this entire situation.

Two days later, Bob Smietana, the author, added:

We have not been able to confirm a connection between the missing laptop and the initial coming forward. There’s a claim the laptop was recovered and a police report filed. We’ve been very careful to only report what we can verify-

Grace Lavery also responded:

Hi “Let It Be Known”: I can confirm that Danny heard about the stolen laptop as the grounds for reporting from Johnny himself, and John repeated the story to me and Danny later on the 15th November. Why would they do so unless it was true? The notion that they may have been lying is far from exonerating on this matter. In any case, anonymous interjections offering unverifiable conjectures in response to public evidence, are unlikely to be taken seriously. best wishes, Grace

RNS did not report on the stolen laptop or the alleged retrieval and police report, unfortunately. And indeed, if the volunteer did not come to John “for counseling” as the church had said multiple times, if in fact the volunteer came to John because of a fear over a lost laptop… that puts John’s actions in an entirely different light.

viii.

Nicole Cliffe, who was baptized by John Ortberg and a friend of the family, told RNS that she had spoken to Laura Turner, the oldest sibling, in confidence. According to Nicole, Laura told her the volunteer was not allowed unsupervised with her young son. When she spoke to investigator Alvarez, however, he seemed surprised and said he had not been told of this. John Ortberg denied the restriction to RNS.

Cliffe broke with the family after discovering the discrepancy between Laura’s story to her and her story to the investigator. She wrote:

I broke off all contact with the family after finding a large factual discrepancy between a statement made to me and a statement made by the same person to the investigator. I had hung onto a lot of hope that engaging would lead to cooperation and self-reflection and full disclosure to the church, and I don’t regret trying but it became clear it was a bottomless well of secrecy built around preserving a certain image. I loved and trusted all of them so deeply.

This is a big one, and it’s easy to see why the Ortbergs would deny it. Because it tells you everything: if the Ortbergs felt so confident that the volunteer had not and would not ever harm a child, then he should have been allowed around his nephew. If he was not, this calls into question every other aspect of their story.

vix.

I think, because of how much has been made public in the news, the church will do a second investigation into this volunteer. They must. But the problem is deeper.

At least two former MPPC staff have been let go quietly after predatory behavior with students under their care, one in ~1991 and one in ~2009. In both cases, according to those present at the time, the church behaved as if the students involved were culpable—in one case, it was called an “affair.” Both former staff went on to work or volunteer with students afterward. If two such cases have been made public in only a week, there are probably more.

As far as we know, the elder board is still in charge, and John Ortberg is still in his position. Their ongoing and deliberate deception has not been addressed—John was still denying major points of this saga to RNS on Monday. Any investigation will have no lasting effect if John Ortberg and the current elder board receive a slap on the wrist for their egregiously unethical actions. Will the church hold John Ortberg and the current elder board accountable? Will they inspect the culture that bred these problems and enabled this response? Will the church truly change going forward?

Telling the truth is costly. When you have as many secrets as it seems Menlo does, telling the truth is very costly. Yet if Menlo wants to continue calling itself a “Jesus church” and keep its integrity, there is no other option.