A Megachurch Reels After Learning Pastor Let His Professed Pedophile Son Work With Kids
The leaders of a California evangelical megachurch are under fire for bungling the church’s response to a youth ministry volunteer’s confession that he was attracted to minors.
The Menlo Church volunteer in question first told Senior Pastor John Ortberg about his feelings two years ago, though congregants weren’t officially notified about the situation until January. That the volunteer was the pastor’s younger son, John “Johnny” Ortberg III, was kept secret until a whistleblower leaked the news late last month.
The younger Ortberg denies acting inappropriately towards children and to date, no one has come forward with allegations claiming otherwise. But the revelation of his identity has heightened scrutiny of the church’s response and raised questions about whether John Ortberg ― who allowed his son to continue volunteering with children for over a year after hearing about the disordered attractions ― should remain the church’s senior pastor.
The church’s board acknowledged this week that its handling of the matter has caused “pain and distrust” in the community, and pledged to do better.
As of Tuesday, John Ortberg remained Menlo Church’s senior pastor.
Current and former members of Menlo Church told HuffPost they are upset by how the board ― and John Ortberg in particular ― handled the situation, claiming that leaders prioritized maintaining Ortberg’s reputation over building a culture that is safe for children and welcoming to any survivors of sexual abuse. Some members have also been upset over how the board’s chairwoman attempted to discredit the whistleblower, Daniel Lavery, a trans writer and Ortberg’s estranged son, who has broken from his family’s conservative evangelical faith.
Tiger Bachler, an Atherton resident who attended Menlo Church for over 20 years, told HuffPost that by keeping his son’s attraction to minors a secret for months, John Ortberg and his wife demonstrated that their priorities were skewed.
“It was more important to them to protect their reputation rather than think about the risk to the kids of the church,” said Bachler, who stopped attending services regularly about five years ago but still considers Menlo to be her home church.
Bachler said she doesn’t understand how the church can continue having Ortberg as its senior pastor.
“Given his responsibility as a pastor, the children of the church are the most vulnerable part of his flock and he did not stand up for them,” Bachler said. “He did not protect them.”
A Secret Confession
Johnny Ortberg, who is in his early 30s, first told his father about his attraction to children in July 2018. He assured his father that he had never acted on that attraction, and the pastor believed him.
The pastor failed to report his son’s confession to the top governing body at Menlo Church, a church located in an affluent Bay Area neighborhood, that draws about 6,000 weekly attendees across six campuses.
The confession remained secret for over a year, during which John Ortberg did not take steps to prevent his son from volunteering with children at Menlo Church or local student Ultimate Frisbee teams.
Clergy are mandated reporters in California, but they have an exemption from this rule if they hear about potential child abuse during a “penitential communication.” The church’s top leaders have said that the volunteer came to John Ortberg “in confidence.”
Lavery has said his brother opened up to him in November 2019 about experiencing pedophilic attractions for years, admitting that he’d tried to treat this condition by seeking out volunteer opportunities with children, which sometimes included overnight travel. Lavery claims that his father encouraged this work, citing alleged family texts from August 2019 in which John Ortberg appeared to congratulate his son for work with a local youth sports team.
A spokesperson working with the Ortberg family told HuffPost that Johnny Ortberg has “never acted inappropriately and has never been tempted to act inappropriately.” Johnny Ortberg did not seek out volunteer opportunities with children as a way to manage his condition and his parents never encouraged him to do so, the spokesperson said, adding that John Ortberg provided his son with referrals to clinical experts and Johnny Ortberg “has met regularly” with one of them.
John Ortberg told HuffPost through the spokesperson that, after learning about his son’s attractions, the pastor “conferred with clinical experts and other pastors about this situation.” John Ortberg still “believes he followed the correct course of action in protecting the confidentiality of his son from the authorities, given he never considered his son to be a risk to himself or others.” Nevertheless, he is “unreservedly sorry for not having immediately asked the church elders for counsel,” the spokesperson added.
Marci Hamilton, CEO of the child abuse prevention think tank Child USA, told HuffPost that she believes John Ortberg’s response to the confession was “woefully deficient.” She said Johnny Ortberg’s confession to his father appears to have been a “cry for help.”
“I would assume that he was struggling and was hoping that others would be able to set up some guardrails for him,” Hamilton said. “That did not happen ne...