A Menlo Park megachurch recently placed a pastor on leave after learning he allowed a volunteer who admitted an "unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors" to continue working with children for about a year and a half.
Menlo Church senior pastor John Ortberg was suspended on Nov. 22 after someone alerted church leaders that Ortberg had offered "prayers and referrals for counseling" to the volunteer, but didn't prevent the person from working with minors at the 950 Santa Cruz Ave. campus, according to a Jan. 21 email church officials sent members.
Ortberg did not consult anyone else at Menlo Church – at which 6,000 people attend weekly services across the evangelical Presbyterian church's six locations that run from South San Francisco down to Saratoga – about the situation, the email states.
The board retained an independent investigator, who did not find any misconduct in the Menlo Church community, said Beth Seabolt, the church’s Elder Board chair, in the email. Ortberg was reinstated on Jan. 24, she noted.
"Nevertheless, the investigation showed John exhibited poor judgment that was inconsistent with his responsibilities as Senior Pastor," she wrote.
On Feb. 2, Ortberg's son, Daniel Lavery, a Slate.com columnist, posted a widely read tweet – which has garnered 200 retweets and 5,300 likes as of Friday afternoon – stating he was the person who alerted church officials to his father’s interactions with the volunteer on Nov. 21, which occurred in July 2018.
Lavery did not name the volunteer, but said that he or she shared with him on Nov. 15 that the volunteer had "experienced obsessive sexual feelings about young children" and was seeking out unsupervised volunteer positions with children to treat this obsession. In his tweet, Lavery said he confirmed with his father that his father had encouraged the unsupervised work. Ortberg, Lavery wrote, asserted that the "most important thing was maintaining secrecy over the affair."
The individual in question was a part-time volunteer at the church and has not volunteered at any church events since this issue was raised with the board, said Heather Holliday, the senior director of marketing and communications at Menlo Church.
The church has policies in place to keep children safe, according to officials. For example, all leaders are interviewed and their background checked, they said. Also, they said, a child is never alone with an adult on overnight trips or in a room on the church campus.
In the Jan. 21 email, officials also mentioned they are reviewing their protective measures for children.
The January email was the church's first public acknowledgment of why Ortberg was absent. Church officials told members in an early December email obtained by The Almanac that Ortberg was on an unspecified personal leave, explaining that "he is not ill, and we ask that you join us in praying for him and our church family."
Ruth Hutchins, a church member who has been attending the church's Mountain View campus since 2009, said in an interview with The Almanac that she wants more transparency from leadership. She said she's happy that officials put Ortberg on leave immediately after hearing about his actions, but she's concerned they didn't tell members about it until January.
She said she wants Menlo Church to hire someone who specializes in investigating pedophilia, and added that officials should share detailed results of the inquiry, along with the name of the investigator.
"The number one thing that needs to be done is they (church officials) need to have a proper investigation and make sure no children were harmed," said Hutchins. "It sounds pretty high-risk – someone who seeks out volunteering opportunities and overnights (with children). That should be setting off a lot of red flags."
The board has adopted a "restoration plan" with Ortberg so he can "rebuild trust across Menlo Church, including with the congregation, staff, leadership and elders," the board members said in a Feb. 5 statement.
"John's return to full responsibilities will rely on the progress made in his restoration plan," they wrote. "The Board will make a determination on his restoration based on consultation with the various stakeholders across Menlo Church that John must rebuild trust with. At this time, John is only working internally with staff and the Board, focusing on his restoration plan and seeking to rebuild trust."
Ortberg has been a senior pastor at Menlo Church since 2004, according to the church's website. He has authored several books such as "The Life You’ve Always Wanted" and "Soul Keeping" and has spoken at conferences around the world, according to his website.
Ortberg did not respond to a request for comment.