The Zero Abuse Project's Menlo Church Assessment Is Now Publicly Available

The Zero Abuse Project, a collective of multiple programs “dedicated to the elimination of child abuse,” published their assessment of Menlo Church this week after a ten-month-long investigation. The report is 117 pages long and publicly available for download here.

My wife Grace and I filed our first report with the church in November 2019, calling for a thorough investigation into my brother’s work with children, my father’s decision to covertly encourage my brother in his work with children at their church and elsewhere even after his disclosure of sexual attraction towards young boys, and my father’s subsequent attempts to interfere with the investigation. For more detail, the Menlo allegations site has a timeline of relevant events, as well as a series of institutional proposals, which you can read here.

We – along with a number of Menlo Church parishioners, both past and present – called for an independent body to establish accountability in the Ortberg case, and improve safeguarding at Menlo Church, and for that investigation to address Menlo’s international missions trips, as the church’s initial cursory investigation failed to do so.

Zero Abuse Project’s stated investigatory goals were to assess whether a former volunteer, hereinafter referred to as “Individual A,” engaged in any act(s) of sexual misconduct with any minor(s), and to assess Menlo’s child protection policies. Their contract with Menlo Church also required that they assess the circumstances surrounding my brother’s disclosure of pedophilia to an employee of Menlo Church (our father), the church leadership’s initial and ongoing responses to that disclosure, and the child protection policies in place during his time as a volunteer, as well as provide policy recommendations as a result of their findings.

I have been relieved and gratified by the thoroughness of the Zero Abuse Project’s investigation, believe their recommendations to be sensible and eminently achievable and will go a long way towards improving child safeguarding at Menlo Church. I am additionally relieved that they found no evidence of child sexual abuse, although I also know that absence of evidence is not the same as an evidence of absence.

This Report also summarizes our key findings. The witnesses we interviewed denied experiencing or witnessing sexual misconduct by Individual A. However, the witnesses we spoke to and the documents we reviewed did reveal risks and weaknesses in Menlo’s child protection policies and approach to child protection. Accordingly, we propose numerous recommendations to improve these policies, and we strongly urge the hiring of a full-time Child Protection Director to oversee these reforms. We also call on Menlo to engage with this subject theologically in sermons, Bible studies, and a proactive ministry to survivors of abuse.

We are mindful that this case involves an unusual circumstance in which a congregant informs a pastor of an unwanted attraction to minors but denies acting on these thoughts. The question of how a pastor (and the church as a whole) should respond poses complex issues of law, theology, mental health, and most importantly, child safety…

In the course of this Assessment, many congregants shared with us their feelings of broken trust, even betrayal, and how the decisions of Pastor Ortberg and the Elders impacted themselves and their families. As a result, some congregants have left the church, and some told us that they are choosing to stay in the hope that this Report, and the church’s response to it, will move Menlo to a place of healing. Healing, though, does not mean forgetting. If Menlo is to mend its relationship with the congregation and better protect children, it must not forget these events but instead process them with humility and learn from them.

I’ll include some of the investigation’s findings here, verbatim wherever possible, as well as the relevant page numbers in the report for easier reference. The Zero Abuse Project team interviewed 104 people after contacting over 2,000, as well as two sex offender subject-matter experts and an unspecified number of “other consultants.” These interviews included current and former students, parents of current and former students, fellow volunteers, current and former Menlo Church staff members, and leaders of the Mexicali missions trips. All emphases below are mine.

  • On Tuesday, November 26, it was determined that Menlo no longer had Individual A’s original volunteer application and that his name was on a list of volunteers who were due to update their background checks for the early 2019 mission trip to Mexico. The background check was not updated, and Individual A attended the Mexicali trip in February of 2019. [P. 12]

  • On December 4, 2019, five senior leaders at Menlo learned that an employee, apparently unaware of the investigation, was planning to ask Individual A to participate in the next Mexicali trip. The senior leaders decided to give Individual A an opportunity to decline the invitation and, if he did not, senior leaders stated that “[they] will need to talk” with Individual A “to ask him to withdraw” from the trip. [P. 12]

  • On December 19, 2019, the Coblentz law firm issued a written report to the Menlo Church Board of Elders entitled “Internal Investigation—Final Report.” [P. 12. Ed. note: Menlo Church’s initial investigation lasted less than a month.]

  • At some point after the completion of the initial investigation, the Elders decided to bring Pastor Ortberg back to the church but to restructure his position as a teaching pastor. He was also to complete a restoration process that included meeting with staff impacted by his decision, visiting all of the campuses, and meeting individually with each of the Elders. At that point, only senior staff and the Elders knew that the volunteer Pastor Ortberg spoke to was his son, Individual A.

  • Early on in our Assessment, we learned of a gift of a piano (later determined to be a keyboard) from the Ortberg family to Person 1 in Mexico. We interviewed a witness who was present when the keyboard was given to Person 1’s family. Both Individual A and Pastor Ortberg were present, and the keyboard was presented as a gift from Individual A’s mother. In an email exchange, we confirmed this fact with Individual A’s mother, who valued the keyboard at $150–$200. Individual A told us that Person 1 had a broken keyboard, and that he and others knew about this. Individual A’s mother wished to replace the broken keyboard by gifting a new one. Individual A said he was involved in selecting the keyboard because of his knowledge of instruments. As noted previously, gifts to only one child, particularly expensive gifts, can be signs of grooming. However, when Person 1 and his family deny abuse, then we cannot call the gift a sign of grooming, since the eyewitness evidence is that no abuse followed. Regardless, singling out one child for a gift is not modeling safe behaviors for the child or others watching. Gifts should not be prohibited but should instead come from the church, and a process should guard against favoritism or an otherwise improper purpose for a gift.

  • There is evidence Individual A may have violated rules on Mexicali mission trips, but this by itself does not support a finding that abuse occurred [P.27].

  • Pastor Ortberg’s decision not to share Individual A’s revelation with other leaders at Menlo and the Elders’ decision not to be fully transparent once they learned of the situation caused significant damage to the Menlo community [P. 32]

I was additionally relieved to see on page 62 an affirmation of our initial position, which is that regardless of whether my brother ever physically harmed a child in his care, it was a fundamentally dangerous proposition to treat youth mentorship as a substitute for therapeutic support:

Although we do not know the precise percentage of pedophiles or others with a sexual attraction to children who act out on these impulses, it is sensible to conclude that someone with a sexual attraction to minors is more likely to sexually abuse a child than someone who does not have this desire. Since there is presently no cure for pedophilia and management appears to be the best recourse, the church should assist those parishioners struggling with these thoughts by removing them from youth ministry.

Removing a parishioner from youth ministry should not be seen as a punishment but as an action by the church to keep children as safe as possible and to assist the parishioner in distancing themself from temptations. Many persons committed to not acting out on their sexual thoughts about children self-regulate themselves in this way...Even if a parishioner attracted to minors is at low risk of physically harming a child, the attraction may result in favoring some children over others by giving them extra attention or gifts or otherwise elevating their needs. In one study, 71.6% of adult participants sexually attracted to children “reported having fallen in love with a child who was 14 or younger when the participants themselves were 18 and older.”

Although this “does not mean romantic attraction to a child necessarily increases risk of sexual offending,” it is an unhealthy dynamic in which the child is meeting the emotional needs of the adult.

The Zero Abuse Project also identified an institutional policy that exacerbated the danger of my brother’s decision to pursue unsupervised contact with young boys: “Prior to 2020, Menlo had “appropriateness guidelines” that had markedly different standards for staff and volunteers working with youth of the same or opposite sex…In focusing on protecting youth of the opposite sex, Menlo left exposed children of the same sex as a volunteer or staff member who may have sought to harm a child.” They also call upon Menlo Church to delete or modify the section on “false reports” in their sexual misconduct policy [p. 105].

I hope this will lead to broader investigations into other publicly-documented histories of abuse at Menlo Church, reflecting the reports of Brit Badduke, Sarah Watson, and others.

There is also an urgent, long-overdue need for a thorough investigation of Sabaah Jauhar-Rizvi’s report of child sexual abuse at the hands of my father, John Ortberg, Jr, when she was fifteen years old and sent to him for “special counseling” at his former employer, Willow Creek Community Church. Jauhar-Rizi first made her account public in April 2018, before any allegations of John Jr.’s misconduct at Menlo Church. She also claims a member of Willow Creek had tried to intimidate her into retracting her claims. This is a far more serious allegation than anything at Menlo Church, yet to my knowledge Willow Creek has taken no steps to investigate it.

As the conclusion of the Zero Abuse Project’s report puts it,

What if Pastor Ortberg had informed other leaders in the church and a more “robust inquiry” was conducted? What would have resulted if the Elders had been more transparent and informed the community that the volunteer was someone close to Pastor Ortberg? How would the situation have been changed if the church had directly helped Individual A? Would a better response have created an environment where others struggling with an attraction to minors might have felt safe in seeking help, while affirming to the parishioners and community that the protection of children will never be compromised?

We cannot know the answers to these questions, but we do know the aftermath of the decisions that were made—a church divided with many congregants, particularly those with histories of trauma in their lives, deeply wounded.”

It is difficult to describe my reaction to this report, nearly two years after my first report. It is very long overdue, of course. I am touched by the thoroughness, care, and attention to detail within the report, and at the same time saddened and angered that the church’s initial response so often lacked those qualities. Like the writers of this report, I am grieved by the consideration of what might have been. I hope that Menlo Church follows these recommendations. I hope that Menlo Church and Willow Creek both commission immediate investigations into the other outstanding allegations against other church staff and volunteers, not least the outstanding allegation of child sexual abuse against my father, John Ortberg Jr.

Sabaah Jauhar-Rizvi first went public in 2018 with her claims that John Ortberg, Jr. sexually abused her when she was fifteen in his capacity as a pastor and counselor. I recognize such a claim falls outside of the remit of this particular report by the Zero Abuse Project.

I contacted the current elder board at Willow Creek on February 18th, 2021, after speaking with Sabaah, to reiterate the need for an investigation of her claims. They replied to say that they had reviewed the post and were “heart broken by its content,” but that they could not share any details about the “required work that lies ahead.” I can only hope that whatever work they have undertaken in the subsequent eight months will be as thorough, impartial, and publicly available as today’s report.

If any members of the Ortberg family are moved to offer a public apology for trying to prevent my report and subsequent attempts to smear my motivations for so doing, I will be available to hear it. While I am far from the primary victim of their collusion, secrecy, and inexcusable risk-taking, I believe such a public apology would be a useful gesture towards ensuring future reporters and whistle-blowers feel empowered to speak.

I realize this is a very long issue on a very fraught subject. If the tone throughout has been on the drier side, I hope you will excuse the formality, as I am anxious to avoid wallowing. Thank you very much for reading it.