A Menlo Park megachurch is apologizing for several instances of abuse from decades ago that "had not been addressed in a way that honored the survivors at the time" after information about them was unearthed in recent years.
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.
Menlo Church governing board Chair Jennifer Blatnik said that several people have come forward over the last few years sharing about abuse that occurred within the church from as far back as 30 years ago.
"While staff members were removed from ministerial and other roles at the time, there are still hurts and wounds that remain open and need healing," said senior pastor Phil EuBank in a March 17 letter to its members. EuBank stepped into the role in January. "I hope that this note serves as a way for our whole community to grieve and pray for this group of survivors who have been brave enough to come forward."
Several reports of abuse in the church surfaced over three years ago, after Menlo Church suspended its senior pastor, John Ortberg, over his failure to prevent a church volunteer from working with minors even though the volunteer had admitted to having obsessive sexual feelings about young children, according to a January 2020 email that church officials sent members.
An October 2021 investigation by Zero Abuse Project, a nonprofit aimed at eliminating child sexual abuse, states that the volunteer was one of Ortberg's sons.
Before joining Menlo Church, EuBank was most recently lead pastor at Eastern Hills Community Church in Aurora, Colorado, according to his LinkedIn page. Before that, he was executive pastor of operations and teaching at Westminster Chapel in Bellevue, Washington.
In February 2020, Ortberg's other son, Slate.com columnist Daniel Lavery, posted a widely read tweet stating that he was the person who alerted church officials about his father's interactions with the volunteer, later revealed to be his brother, which occurred in July 2018.
In his tweet, Lavery said he confirmed with his father that he had encouraged the volunteer's unsupervised work with children. His father, Lavery wrote, asserted that the "most important thing was maintaining secrecy over the affair."
As pastor, Ortberg was a mandated reporter, which by law required him to report suspected abuse or neglect. He stepped down from his leadership position at Menlo Church in July 2020. He still serves as an adviser to Transforming the Bay with Christ; his wife Nancy Ortberg serves as its CEO, according to its website.
During a March 8, 2020, town hall meeting, Ortberg spoke about why he did not make a report to the authorities, according to the Zero Abuse report:
"I am what's called a mandated reporter and that means that I am obligated to report a person to appropriate authorities if there is a reasonable suspicion of damage. In other words, that the person might have done harm or might do harm. I can say, having asked the volunteer when we had that initial conversation very stringent questions around this, I am absolutely certain that that person did not harm anybody and would not and will not harm anybody. Immediately, after that conversation, I consulted with two clinical experts and both of them confirmed that this was a situation in which reporting was not mandatory and would not have been appropriate."
Before hiring the Zero Abuse group to conduct an investigation, the board retained an independent investigator, who did not find any misconduct in the Menlo Church community.
Blatnik, who has attended the church for over a decade, said the church continues to work with Zero Abuse because working with a "reputable third party specializing in the area" is the "right thing to do."
The letter from EuBank also includes steps church staff are taking to combat abuse in the church.
For example, all Menlo Church staff members, including church elders, have received child abuse training and are mandated reporters as well as all volunteers who serve with children and students.
The church has set up an email address for survivors or congregants to send their concerns to email@example.com. Zero Abuse will not share any information received with Menlo unless specifically authorized to do so by the person who contacted them, according to the letter. However, if Zero Abuse Project receives a disclosure of child abuse, the organization will notify law enforcement or other appropriate authorities.
The church is providing financial resources available for survivors of this abuse at Menlo to pursue care and counseling. Those interested can email firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more and access counseling referrals and resources.
Progress from Zero Abuse recommendations
The church also provided a March 2023 update on progress made on recommendations from Zero Abuse.
For example, the church provided personal safety education for parents and caregivers who have children or youth in a Menlo ministry. It also has modified its staff handbook to include the recommendations from Zero Abuse to explicitly require employees to report gift-giving, including gifts to children, and clarify the prohibition on physical violence.
The church is making progress on a number of other suggestions from the nonprofit, according to the report, and expects to establish a standing child protection committee this spring.