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Menlo Church investigation finds no evidence of sexual misconduct

Report comes more than a year after senior pastor resigned amidst allegations of poor judgment

Menlo Church, located at 950 Santa Cruz Ave. in Menlo Park, is one of five Bay Area locations where a faith community of about 3,800 total registered members serves about 1,000 children weekly. Embarcadero Media file photo by Sammy Dallal.

Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit specializing in combating child sexual abuse, found no direct evidence of sexual misconduct following a 10-month investigation involving Menlo Church after allegations surfaced last year that the then-senior pastor's son had been permitted to continue to volunteer with youth even after confessing feelings of sexual attraction to minors.

Menlo Church, a Reformed Presbyterian faith community, serves about 3,800 registered members across campuses in Menlo Park, San Mateo, Mountain View, Saratoga and San Jose. It is part of the denomination ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

Each week, over 500 volunteers help care for more than 1,000 children who participate in the church's activities, according to the Zero Abuse Project report.

The investigators recently reported that they found no direct evidence of sexual misconduct by the pastor's son, but laid out a number of ways that the church could improve its practices to minimize the risk of someone harming children through its programs.

The report comes more than a year after Menlo Church's senior pastor John Ortberg stepped down in July 2020 amidst allegations of poor judgment. The details became public after a whistleblower, Ortberg's son Danny Lavery, raised concerns with the church's leaders, and then more publicly via Twitter, that his brother had been permitted to volunteer for more than a year after telling his father that he experienced sexual attraction to minors.

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The investigation by Zero Abuse Project looked into potential instances of sexual misconduct by the pastor's son, referred to as "Individual A," combing more than 500,000 pages of documents and records as well as interviewing 104 people over about 94 hours of interview time.

The 117-page report, and The Almanac's previous reporting, declined to name the pastor's son because there has so far been no disclosure or other direct evidence of child sexual abuse by him.

The investigation was led by Victor Vieth, chief program officer for education and research, and Shanon May, chief program officer for victim assistance, at Zero Abuse Project, according to the report. They had support from former child abuse prosecutors, victim assistance specialists and a child forensic interviewer.

The group also contracted with an organization that responds to sexual abuse in the Jewish community, an expert on digital forensic evidence analysis, a former child abuse detective, a sex offender treatment provider, an expert on sex offender management, and an immigration attorney fluent in Spanish to help interview witnesses from Mexico, as well as an initial review of more than 130 documents.

The investigation

Beyond the investigation of "Individual A," the report's authors also dug into how the church can reform various programs and approaches to its ministries to more proactively prevent child sexual abuse and boost the faith community's knowledge about the subject.

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The issue of child sexual abuse is one not specific to individual faith communities, "but the entire Christian church," the report's authors said.

"As Menlo discovered, churches that are not prepared to respond to this issue may set in motion a chain of events that hurt a great many people," the report's authors said.

"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," they added.

One source of earlier concerns was that an initial investigation into the matter by Fred Alvarez of the law firm Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass was too limited.

According to the Zero Abuse Project report, the previous investigation had included a review of the church's records of the individual's volunteer activities and eight people. One Menlo staff member also interviewed nine other staff members with a script, asking questions about any reports of inappropriate relationships, touching or contact with students. And while none of those interviews identified concerns about "Individual A," nobody was explicitly asked about him in those interviews either, the report said.

In the aftermath of that investigation, as well as Ortberg's decision to step down, leaders at the church formed a "Supplemental Investigation Advisory Committee" to help select a firm to lead a more thorough investigation. Members of the committee were Lisa Carhart, Amy Hsieh, Chris Hsuing, Paul Merrill and Caroline Tuan, according to the Menlo Church website.

That group chose Zero Abuse Project, "based largely on their reputation and experience with these types of investigations," the committee said in a statement to The Almanac.

"The SIAC is grateful to the (church's leaders) for granting complete autonomy and independence in recommending Zero Abuse as the investigatory body and we are satisfied with the breadth, depth, and level of detail contained in the final report," the committee added.

The church also held an online town hall discussion of the report on Oct. 17.

Recommendations

Among the recommendations in the report were for the church to:

• Create greater restrictions for volunteers who work with children of the same sex. While the church has maintained strict limits on volunteer and staff interactions with children of the opposite sex, contact with youth of the same gender until recently had been strongly supported, according to the report.

Instead of encouraging leaders to become involved in the personal lives of the youths they work with, such as surprising them by showing up at a sports practice or giving them rides, leaders should generally avoid one-on-one meetings and build in other checks to prevent possible abuse, such as obtaining written approval for one-on-one meetings, discussing appropriate boundaries between mentors and youth, or using church email addresses that are periodically checked by supervisors to ensure nothing suspicious is taking place.

• Provide personal safety education for parents and caregivers whose children participate in youth church programs, as well as for the minor participants.

• Develop a policy for working with a congregant sexually attracted to minors.

• Hire a child protection director and create a standing Child Protection Committee to support the director, implement child abuse prevention initiatives and prioritize child protection concerns.

• Create a safer environment for Menlo's LGBTQIA+ community. The report states, "although Menlo describes itself as a welcoming community, it is not an affirming community."

• Develop one or more community collaborations to address child maltreatment, such as partnering with local child protection agencies or specially trained chaplains who can work with medical and mental health professionals while managing the faith-based aspects of supporting maltreated children.

• Incorporate topics of child abuse and maltreatment into faith activities, such as offering Bible studies related to child maltreatment, delivering periodic sermons on child abuse, participating in multifaith efforts to raise awareness about children's needs, or hosting a "service of lament" that invites parishioners to express grief and sadness to encourage healing.

• Develop a process for restorative justice that prioritizes the needs of victims over those of offenders. "In all likelihood, there would need to be an outside mediator who can help facilitate conversations between those who are hurt and those who may have, perhaps unwittingly, hurt them," the report states.

Ultimately, the report asks whether, if the church had handled the situation differently, the situation involving "Individual A" and the pastor — described by one witness as a "public scandal " — could have had a different outcome. "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?" it asks.

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Kate Bradshaw writes for The Almanac, a sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

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Menlo Church investigation finds no evidence of sexual misconduct

Report comes more than a year after senior pastor resigned amidst allegations of poor judgment

by / Almanac

Uploaded: Fri, Oct 22, 2021, 12:30 pm
Updated: Tue, Oct 26, 2021, 7:15 am

Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit specializing in combating child sexual abuse, found no direct evidence of sexual misconduct following a 10-month investigation involving Menlo Church after allegations surfaced last year that the then-senior pastor's son had been permitted to continue to volunteer with youth even after confessing feelings of sexual attraction to minors.

Menlo Church, a Reformed Presbyterian faith community, serves about 3,800 registered members across campuses in Menlo Park, San Mateo, Mountain View, Saratoga and San Jose. It is part of the denomination ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians.

Each week, over 500 volunteers help care for more than 1,000 children who participate in the church's activities, according to the Zero Abuse Project report.

The investigators recently reported that they found no direct evidence of sexual misconduct by the pastor's son, but laid out a number of ways that the church could improve its practices to minimize the risk of someone harming children through its programs.

The report comes more than a year after Menlo Church's senior pastor John Ortberg stepped down in July 2020 amidst allegations of poor judgment. The details became public after a whistleblower, Ortberg's son Danny Lavery, raised concerns with the church's leaders, and then more publicly via Twitter, that his brother had been permitted to volunteer for more than a year after telling his father that he experienced sexual attraction to minors.

The investigation by Zero Abuse Project looked into potential instances of sexual misconduct by the pastor's son, referred to as "Individual A," combing more than 500,000 pages of documents and records as well as interviewing 104 people over about 94 hours of interview time.

The 117-page report, and The Almanac's previous reporting, declined to name the pastor's son because there has so far been no disclosure or other direct evidence of child sexual abuse by him.

The investigation was led by Victor Vieth, chief program officer for education and research, and Shanon May, chief program officer for victim assistance, at Zero Abuse Project, according to the report. They had support from former child abuse prosecutors, victim assistance specialists and a child forensic interviewer.

The group also contracted with an organization that responds to sexual abuse in the Jewish community, an expert on digital forensic evidence analysis, a former child abuse detective, a sex offender treatment provider, an expert on sex offender management, and an immigration attorney fluent in Spanish to help interview witnesses from Mexico, as well as an initial review of more than 130 documents.

Beyond the investigation of "Individual A," the report's authors also dug into how the church can reform various programs and approaches to its ministries to more proactively prevent child sexual abuse and boost the faith community's knowledge about the subject.

The issue of child sexual abuse is one not specific to individual faith communities, "but the entire Christian church," the report's authors said.

"As Menlo discovered, churches that are not prepared to respond to this issue may set in motion a chain of events that hurt a great many people," the report's authors said.

"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," they added.

One source of earlier concerns was that an initial investigation into the matter by Fred Alvarez of the law firm Coblentz, Patch, Duffy & Bass was too limited.

According to the Zero Abuse Project report, the previous investigation had included a review of the church's records of the individual's volunteer activities and eight people. One Menlo staff member also interviewed nine other staff members with a script, asking questions about any reports of inappropriate relationships, touching or contact with students. And while none of those interviews identified concerns about "Individual A," nobody was explicitly asked about him in those interviews either, the report said.

In the aftermath of that investigation, as well as Ortberg's decision to step down, leaders at the church formed a "Supplemental Investigation Advisory Committee" to help select a firm to lead a more thorough investigation. Members of the committee were Lisa Carhart, Amy Hsieh, Chris Hsuing, Paul Merrill and Caroline Tuan, according to the Menlo Church website.

That group chose Zero Abuse Project, "based largely on their reputation and experience with these types of investigations," the committee said in a statement to The Almanac.

"The SIAC is grateful to the (church's leaders) for granting complete autonomy and independence in recommending Zero Abuse as the investigatory body and we are satisfied with the breadth, depth, and level of detail contained in the final report," the committee added.

The church also held an online town hall discussion of the report on Oct. 17.

Among the recommendations in the report were for the church to:

• Create greater restrictions for volunteers who work with children of the same sex. While the church has maintained strict limits on volunteer and staff interactions with children of the opposite sex, contact with youth of the same gender until recently had been strongly supported, according to the report.

Instead of encouraging leaders to become involved in the personal lives of the youths they work with, such as surprising them by showing up at a sports practice or giving them rides, leaders should generally avoid one-on-one meetings and build in other checks to prevent possible abuse, such as obtaining written approval for one-on-one meetings, discussing appropriate boundaries between mentors and youth, or using church email addresses that are periodically checked by supervisors to ensure nothing suspicious is taking place.

• Provide personal safety education for parents and caregivers whose children participate in youth church programs, as well as for the minor participants.

• Develop a policy for working with a congregant sexually attracted to minors.

• Hire a child protection director and create a standing Child Protection Committee to support the director, implement child abuse prevention initiatives and prioritize child protection concerns.

• Create a safer environment for Menlo's LGBTQIA+ community. The report states, "although Menlo describes itself as a welcoming community, it is not an affirming community."

• Develop one or more community collaborations to address child maltreatment, such as partnering with local child protection agencies or specially trained chaplains who can work with medical and mental health professionals while managing the faith-based aspects of supporting maltreated children.

• Incorporate topics of child abuse and maltreatment into faith activities, such as offering Bible studies related to child maltreatment, delivering periodic sermons on child abuse, participating in multifaith efforts to raise awareness about children's needs, or hosting a "service of lament" that invites parishioners to express grief and sadness to encourage healing.

• Develop a process for restorative justice that prioritizes the needs of victims over those of offenders. "In all likelihood, there would need to be an outside mediator who can help facilitate conversations between those who are hurt and those who may have, perhaps unwittingly, hurt them," the report states.

Ultimately, the report asks whether, if the church had handled the situation differently, the situation involving "Individual A" and the pastor — described by one witness as a "public scandal " — could have had a different outcome. "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?" it asks.

Kate Bradshaw writes for The Almanac, a sister publication of PaloAltoOnline.com.

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