How the Menlo Megachurch Sexual Abuse Scandal Should Have Been Handled

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How the Menlo Megachurch Sexual Abuse Scandal Should Have Been Handled

How the Menlo Megachurch Sexual Abuse Scandal Should Have Been Handled

Jul 22, 2020

by Detective Moses Castillo

Last week the Menlo Church in Northern California made headlines for mishandling a possible claim of sexual assault involving children. A volunteer sought out a church leader to confess “an unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors.” Rather than immediately reporting the confession (and helping the volunteer find professional help for his disorder), the church leader chose to remain silent. It’s an unfortunate scenario that, despite being entirely preventable, occurs each and every day, often leading to devastating ramifications.

Ortberg’s inaction is troubling on a number of levels, and I’ll address what should have been done and why in greater detail below. However, in discussing the Menlo Church story with others this week I’ve come to realize another disturbing trend that, just like silence and cover-ups following sex crimes, occurs far too frequently. Namely, I’m referring to the public’s tendency to rationalize such blatant mistakes that are ultimately a straightforward matter of right and wrong.

Sex Crimes – Black & White Versus Shades of Grey:

As a former LAPD detective, I spent the majority of my 30-year career within the department’s various Sex Crimes Units, including several years with the elite Juvenile Division for Abused Children. I investigated over 1500 cases (while supervising or assisting in 1500 more), and although most were horrific and emotionally exhausting, I felt fortunate to be in a position where every day I had an opportunity to help bring justice against some of the city’s most notorious and heinous criminals.

I’ve seen every type of sex crime case imaginable. What I’ve learned over the years is that sex crimes are indiscriminate, impacting survivors of every demographic — young and old, rich and poor, secular and religious, etc. Invariably, each time a sex crime occurs a path of devastation follows, impacting individuals, families, and even the institutions to which they belong. For this reason, I view sex crimes (and the reporting of sex crimes) as a black and white issue. There are few things in life that do not involve shades of grey, that aren’t open to some form of interpretation. But not sex crimes. With sex crimes, there’s a right and a wrong, a survivor and a criminal, and it’s always a tragedy. The only question is whether the heinous criminal act itself is exacerbated by inaction, senselessly leading to compounded damage.

You may be nodding your head along as you’re reading. Most people certainly do, initially, when hearing of a sex crime. But inevitably more facts come to light, and a matter of right and wrong can become open to interpretation, specifically when it comes to the reporting of a sex crime.

In the Menlo Church case, the volunteer who made the confession to Reverend Ortberg also happened to be his son, John “Johnny” Ortberg III. Johnny claimed that he hadn’t acted on his impulses, and the reverend took him at his word. But Johnny continued to have unsupervised access to children through the church, including overnight events and programs, all with his father’s knowledge.

The confession was only brought to light two years after the fact by Ortberg’s other son, Daniel Lavery. Lavery reportedly felt compelled to publicly identify Johnny via Twitter after learning that his father continued to allow Johnny to interact with children unsupervised.

What would you do in that situation if you were Reverend Ortberg? Sadly, statistics show that silence is the most likely course of action, often together with blaming the victim, rather than believing and reporting a claim.  In speaking to people about this specific Menlo Church case, I’m amazed how easy it is for people to rationalize Ortberg’s decision to remain silent. They may not agree with it, and nearly everyone I speak with denies that they would ever not report such a confession. But almost everyone cites the “complexity” of “difficulty” involved in the reverend’s decision. They see shades of grey, when they should only see black and white. And I believe this speaks to a larger issue that we all need to examine when considering the Menlo Church case.

There are many reasons why Ortberg may have ultimately chosen not to report his son. Maybe he was worried about his own reputation, or that people would judge his son unfairly. Maybe he thought he could keep watch over his son, ensuring he would never act on his impulses. But in the final analysis, no reason or rationalization is acceptable because it prioritizes Ortberg’s personal interests over the safety of the children. Regardless of the rationale, making the choice to remain silent was undeniably wrong. Reporting the confession was the only way to do the right thing.

This example, like thousands of others, has only one outcome, and we should all be familiar with it by now — the mishandling inevitably leads to a larger and more devastating issue. What if Ortberg immediately sought professional help for his son and disclosed the situation to his congregation? Would he have been scorned for helping his own son, thereby protecting his congregants? What potential outcome so concerned Ortberg that it caused him to choose to put his own self-interests ahead of the safety of the children in the congregation? Where would we be now if Ortberg had simply reported the confession and sought professional help for his son?

When Someone Discloses a Sex Crime to You:

The strength and courage required to disclose a sex crime is something that can only be understood by the survivor. If someone discloses a sex crime to you, the most important thing you can do is empathize. Validate the survivor’s act of courage by expressing your belief in what they’re telling you. Allow the survivor to tell you the story exactly as they wish, and provide assurance by expressing your unconditional support.

Once the disclosure has been made, it’s important to let the survivor know that you now have a duty to report the crime to the proper authorities. This can often be a delicate, at times contentious interaction, particularly if the survivor is a child. And when a survivor has just taken the step to confide in you, the last thing you want to do is hurt them by betraying their trust. In instances where a child survivor pleads with you to not disclose what they’ve just told you to authorities, it can be helpful to offer an alternative perspective. Rather than disclosing what he or she has just told you, offer the option of having the child tell the same story directly to the authorities (and stress that you will be there the entire time offering love and support).

Attempt to explain that this option will allow you to not break the child’s trust, while also ensuring that no additional child is harmed by remaining silent. It can be a very difficult road to navigate for the confidant, especially when a child is involved. What’s most important, however, is that you never lose sight of the fact that all sex crimes must be reported immediately. Inaction will ultimately lead to far more negative consequences.

Moreover, when a child of sexual abuse comes to an adult they trust and discloses such a terrible secret, inaction on the part of the adult can sometimes create harm almost as damaging as the abuse itself. If a child comes to you and discloses a sex crime, it’s a cry for help and a call to action. Do not let that significant moment in a child’s life (or an adult, for that matter) pass without doing the right thing and reporting the crime. Silence following a disclosure can leave a survivor feeling hopeless and trapped. They’ve made the disclosure in an effort to stop future abuse, but are left feeling as though they failed.

Now what? Will the abuse continue? What options do I have if the one person I trusted did nothing in the face of horrific abuse?

If someone comes to you and discloses a sex crime, I sincerely urge you to do the right thing. They’re coming to you because they want help. Providing help by reporting the crime is always the right course of action.

In California, sex crime survivors have rights when making a disclosure to authorities. A survivor has the right to be interviewed by an officer of the same gender. A survivor has the right to have a designated support person with them at all times when making a statement or being interviewed by police. That designated support person can be a friend or relative, but if the survivor isn’t comfortable with someone they know, a professional victim advocate can be provided.

Organizations such as rape crisis centers have dedicated victim advocates ready to respond 24/7 to survivors reporting a sex crime to the police. Victim advocates are highly trained professionals who provide emotional support to survivors, serving as their tireless advocate throughout the disclosure process. Victim advocates are some of the most important players in the war on sex crimes, which is but one of the reasons why DLG employs two full-time, nationally accredited victim advocates on our in-house SAJE Team (Sexual Assault Justice Experts).

How a Sex Crime Must Always Be Reported:

 Sex crimes must always be reported to the police. The only variable is whether you’re making an emergency call to 911 or a general call to your police department’s sex crimes unit. Most police departments have a designated hotline where sex crimes can be reported, and the reporter can choose to remain anonymous.

If no one is in immediate danger, the call should be made to such a tip line. However, with sex crimes involving children, it’s important to keep in mind that given a child’s vulnerability, every moment is critical. In Los Angeles County, some phone numbers to keep readily available include:

  • The Child Abuse Hotline: 800-540-4000
  • The LAPD’s Child Protection Section of the Juvenile Division: 213-486-0570
  • The Los Angeles County Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-978-3600
  • The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799-SAFE (7233)
  • The LAPD Non-Emergency Information Line: 877-ASK-LAPD (275-5723)
  • The LAPD’s Non-Emergency Dedicated Spanish Line: 213-928-8222

In the Menlo Church case, Reverend Ortberg should have called the police and reported his son’s confession. The fact that his son claimed he had never acted on his impulses should not have inhibited him from making the call. Doing so would have led to three critical outcomes:

  1. Triggered a proper investigation by the authorities (hopefully confirming that Johnny had indeed never sexually abused a child).
  2. Established a record of the confession that would help to ensure measures were put in place to keep Johnny away from Children, significantly decreasing the chances of a child being harmed in the future.
  3. Ensured Johnny immediately received proper professional support.

It’s important to keep in mind that sex crime disclosures often take place years after the actual incident occurred. Every 73 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. However, one-third of sex crime survivors never disclose, and the average age to disclose childhood sexual abuse is reportedly 52.

Obviously, when a sex crime occurred in relation to when someone discloses to you will effect which number you dial to report the incident. If a sex crime occurred to a child 30 years ago, your call should be placed to the general tip line versus the child abuse-dedicated line. But whether the crime occurred 30 years or 30 minutes ago, you must make the call. Prior to California’s AB 218 law, the statute of limitations may have affected whether or not legal action could be pursued against a sex offender.

However, under AB 218 the statute of limitations on childhood sexual abuse is currently removed until the end of 2022, and all survivors are able to pursue civil claims for financial damages against their attacker, regardless of when the crime took place.

When a sex crime is disclosed to you, nothing – not the statute of limitations, a relation to the survivor/abuser, or even your personal opinion as to the veracity of the claim — should stand in your way of making the call to authorities.

Potential False Claims of a Sex Crime Incident:

False sex crime claims are exceedingly rare, whether involving children or adults. But when it comes to a child’s claim of sexual abuse, in 30 years of investigating I found that if a false claim ever did occur, it commonly involved a custody dispute, with one parent essentially instructing a child to lie. Otherwise, instances of children making false accusations are virtually non-existent.

For that reason alone, any time a child makes such a claim it must be reported immediately (never mind the myriad other reasons, like it’s the right thing to do).

The Civilian Internal Investigation Mistake:

In the Menlo Church case, after reporting the issue to the authorities, Reverend Ortberg should have also reported the matter to his superiors. This is not only good communication policy within organizations and businesses, it removes the responsibility moving forward from the individual (Ortberg) where it does not belong, and places it on the overall institution where it does.

Additionally, however, this allows the organization to conduct an internal investigation, but only after the proper authorities have been alerted and begun their own investigation.

Internal organizational investigations led by civilians are unacceptable if conducted on their own. For starters, no civilian has been properly trained to conduct an investigation, particularly when it comes to complex and sensitive issues like sex crimes. But more than anything, internal investigations are inherently biased, and can allow a culture of abuse to become pervasive throughout an institution. We’ve seen this hundreds of times in cases related to the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America.

This week the Huffington Post confirmed that the Menlo Church’s board announced it would be conducting a “supplemental independent investigation” into “concerns raised about Johnny Ortberg that will be overseen by a new committee of elders, staff, parents and volunteers.” Moreover, the report confirmed the church has “pledged to hire an ‘independent outside organization’ to audit its child safety policies.”

A Required Change in Perspective:

 Personally, as someone with three sons, I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for Reverend Ortberg to hear Johnny’s confession and plea for help. Some would say Ortberg was put into an impossible situation. But I disagree. He was most certainly put into a difficult situation, nobody is arguing otherwise. But he chose to remain silent, and consequently endangered countless children. The only aspect of the situation that should have been ‘impossible’ was the potential for him to not report the confession.

The Menlo Church’s motto is, “Everybody’s welcome. Nobody’s perfect. Anything’s possible.” The moment Ortberg first contemplated remaining silent, he should have consulted that very message for guidance.

Everyone should be welcome, and since none of us is perfect that should also have included Johnny, provided he committed to never harming a child, and stopped any future interactions. And through that honesty, by disclosing the confession, it should have been possible for Johnny to remain an accepted member of the congregation (because of that fact, not in spite of it), and for Reverend Ortberg to continue leading the congregation. But by remaining silent, fearful of what might happen if Johnny’s imperfections were discovered, Reverend Ortberg contradicted his own church’s creed. And the result is a scandal and potentially sexual abuse of children that has yet to be uncovered.

We need to not simply view all sexual abuse as a plague that must be eradicated, but realize that any claim related to such abuse must be reported, regardless of the circumstances. Sadly, in my more than 30 years investigating sex crimes, I can count on one hand amount of times an individual did the right thing when it came to reporting a claim against a family member or friend. In fact, the first instinct is typically not to report the claim, but to turn it against the survivor, with accusations of false claims or “misunderstandings” that can be resolved without revealing the matter to authorities. That trend needs to change, and whenever a sex crime (or urge to commit such a crime) is disclosed, the first instinct always needs to be, “we need to call the police.”

Some may say it’s not nearly so clear-cut, and that you must consider the ramifications of how a false claim can affect someone. Setting aside the fact that, as mentioned earlier, false claims are extraordinarily rare, let’s put the alternative scenarios of reporting versus not reporting into perspective.

Is a worse outcome silence leading to a domino effect whereby dozens of victims are impacted, or, in the highly unlikely event that a claim is false, an investigation and temporary scarlet letter of sorts associated with the accused?

The answer should be self-evident. However, just as we need to make a collective shift in reporting all sex crimes, we also need to appreciate that in the rare instance of a false accusation, where a professional investigation is conducted and the accused is found to not be culpable, that individual deserves the ability to resume a productive life that is not forever tainted by the allegation. Due process is everyone’s paramount right, which means that when someone is found innocent of such a claim, the court of public opinion should reflect the court of law. That’s easier said than done, of course. But doing so would make people more inclined to report sex crime claims without seeing shades of grey and second-guessing their decision based on potential personal fallout (i.e. the scarlet letter syndrome).

In the case of Reverend Ortberg, there was one correct response to his son’s confession – “Son, I love you, I believe you, and I’m going to do everything I can to help you.” From there, the Reverend needed to do two things:

  1. Report Johnny to the authorities
  2. Keep him away from children in the future

He didn’t, likely motivated by the incorrect belief that, in the end, doing nothing would lead to a more personally desirable outcome than reporting ever could. But, as it always does, the decision to remain silent in the face of a sex crime (or in this case the urge to commit a sex crime) led to more negative consequences than doing the right thing ever could.

Currently Ortberg is embroiled in a scandal that may ultimately lead to his dismissal. Additionally, the church is affected by negative publicity, and rightful outrage over the mishandling of the confession may cause a mass exodus of congregants. If a professional investigation determines abuse did occur, Ortberg and the church could face a mountain of civil lawsuits. Additionally, Ortberg could potentially face criminal penalties, although the law is particularly vague when it comes to clergy members.

Under California’s “mandatory reporting law,” it is a crime for certain professionals to not report instances of actual or suspected child abuse and child neglect. In a case of suspected abuse, subsection (a)(1) of the law defines an instance of reasonable suspicion as one where it is “objectively reasonable” for a “reasonable person in a like position” to suspect without certainty that child abuse has occurred. Clergy are considered mandated reporters in California, but are technically exempt from the mandatory reporting law if they hear about potential child abuse during a “penitential communication.” The church’s top leaders claim that Johnny came to his father “in confidence.”

I would argue that the context in which Johnny specifically sought out support from his father – as either a close relative or a designated clergy member – is irrelevant. Ortberg had a legal obligation to report what Johnny told him given that any “objectively reasonable” person would certainly entertain the potential for child abuse to have occurred (in spite of the denial of any actual conduct). Whether or not Ortberg ever faces a criminal penalty for failing to report the information, however, is difficult to predict. Even if the ongoing investigation eventually confirms previously undiscovered abuse, the legal grey area within the mandatory reporting law allows for the possibility that Reverend Ortberg would never face a criminal penalty for remaining silent (up to one year in county jail and multiple fines).

Regardless, I firmly believe that by failing to act Ortberg was in the wrong. It reminds me of a quote I often reference when working with survivors:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

-John F. Kennedy in a 1961 speech

Whenever silence and inaction is chosen over reporting a possible instance of sexual abuse, the continued victimization of both children and adults at the hands of perpetrators is allowed to continue unchecked.

Dordulian Law Group – The Sex Crime Experts of Our SAJE Team:

At DLG, our primary area of expertise is sex crimes. Whether it’s childhood sexual abuse, rape, sexual harassment in the workplace, sexual assault, or any other number of horrific crimes, DLG’s expertise and success stems from its seasoned SAJE Team of Sexual Assault Justice Experts, led by Samuel Dordulian. Dordulian began his career as a Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County prosecuting sex crimes. As a sex crimes prosecutor, Dordulian successfully obtained life sentences against some of the city’s most heinous sex offenders, forever removing them from our community.

When Dordulian left the District Attorney’s Office to start his own private practice, his goal was to provide sexual abuse survivors with a unique type of all-encompassing representation. Dordulian established DLG to provide survivors the opportunity to not simply recover financial damages in a civil lawsuit, but also receive the support and resources they need to properly heal and move forward.

The result of that vision is the DLG SAJE Team – a group of dedicated and experienced Sexual Assault Justice Experts who ensure survivors receive not one, but four tiers of representation when pursuing a civil lawsuit against an attacker.

The Four Tiers of DLG SAJE Team Representation:

  1. Case Lead: Samuel Dordulian, former Deputy District Attorney for Los Angeles County
  2. Investigation Lead: Detective Moses Castillo, former 30-year LAPD sex crimes unit leader in the city’s elite Juvenile Division for Abused Children
  3. Support Lead: A licensed clinical therapist with 15 years of experience helping sexual abuse survivors
  4. Advocate Lead: Two in-house, licensed, and nationally accredited victim advocates who have decades of experience passionately advocating on behalf of survivors

If you or someone you love is a survivor of sexual abuse, we’re here for you. Please contact us online or call 800-880-7777 directly to connect with a SAJE Team member 24/7.

The Long-Term Effects of Clergy Sexual Abuse

When I give my business card to survivors, the quote on the bottom reads, “Investigating the most important case .. YOURS.” It’s a sentiment I apply each and every day in my role as Chief Investigator at Dordulian Law Group. If you need to report a sex crime, are the survivor of a sex crime who needs support in deciding whether or not to pursue a lawsuit, or simply have questions regarding a sex crime matter, please know that I am here for you and will do my utmost to support you in any way that I can utilizing my more than 30 years of experience.

Go See Sam