Why Am I So Furious About This?
On the Ortberg family scandal and my bottomless rage reserves
Content warning: non-graphic discussion of child sexual abuse
“Why am I so furious about this?” is a question I ask myself at least once a day.
Usually, the answer is, “Because you live in a white supremacist patriarchy during a pandemic, with a narcissistic, fascist dullard in charge; and you can’t leave your house without feeling Death himself creep up behind you, flagrantly refusing to maintain a six-foot distance; and when you bought your condo, pre-pandemic, you confidently asserted that you could live happily without a second bedroom or any outdoor space; so you feel trapped and powerless and hopeless, and you’re unskilled at processing emotions other than anger, so you are FUCKING ENRAGED at every little thing right now.”
But yesterday, I got extra-furious about something quite serious.
The writer Daniel M. Lavery recently revealed a final, crucial piece of information that gives full context to his decision, last November, to cut ties with his family of origin: father, celebrity evangelical pastor and author John Ortberg, Jr.; mother, Nancy Ortberg, also a pastor; sister, Laura Turner, a writer; and brother, John III. If you want a very detailed version of the story, Menlo Church member Ruth Hutchins has compiled a thorough timeline of events here, along with a number of relevant documents and illuminating blog posts.
The basic details that everyone seems to agree upon are as follows:
In July 2018, someone who frequently volunteered with youth at Menlo Church went to John Ortberg, senior pastor, and confessed that he felt a romantic and sexual attraction to children, primarily boys between the ages of 8 and 13. This person said they had never acted on these thoughts—and so far, no evidence has emerged to the contrary—but said thoughts were unwanted, compulsive, and went back a very long time.
Ortberg, who has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, did not report this to church elders or work to prevent the volunteer from being around the community’s children unsupervised.
Danny Lavery, almost as soon as he learned of this in November 2019, did report it to church elders (naming the volunteer to them but not to the public) and asked that they begin a robust investigation into both the volunteer’s history with children and the cover-up on Ortberg’s part. Ortberg was suspended for some time, and church elders did perform an investigation. The pastor publicly acknowledged all of the salient points above. (I don’t know if he’d want to split hairs about whether or how he may have “worked to prevent contact” between the volunteer and children, but he never disputed that a pedophile made this confession to him, that he did not report it to his church, and that he knew the volunteer continued to work with children.) He was back in the pulpit a few months later.
In February 2020, Lavery publicly revealed the content of his November report to Menlo Church elders, without stating the volunteer’s name.
Two days ago, Lavery revealed that the volunteer in question was his brother, John Ortberg III.
As far as I know at this writing, no one from the Ortberg family has publicly acknowledged this except Laura Turner, who tweeted yesterday (before nuking her account):
There is so much I would like to address and say right now! But I won’t say it all. What I can say is this: I love my brother Danny, and always will. I can also say that the statement he shared yesterday is full of half-truths, lies, and exaggerations. (1/2)
I would like very much to talk with him about this and offer corrections, but he cut off all contact with our family in November and made it very clear that we were never to contact him again. That is all I’m going to say! (2/2)
(If you search Twitter, you can find screenshots of the above tweets. I saw the originals when Turner’s account was still active, so I’m personally confident that Ruth Hutchins got them right.)
“Full of” them.
That’s four separate claims about the nature of Danny Lavery’s public statements. Remember that.
One can appreciate Turner’s not wanting to discuss a painful family scandal publicly, but let’s not forget a few key things:
The Ortberg family had seven full months between Danny’s report to Menlo Church elders and now to figure out a better way to handle all this.
Instead, they seemed content to dismiss it as a relatively minor pastoral mistake, elevated to the level of a scandal by Danny, the mysteriously disgruntled, queer, trans black sheep of the family.
Every single one of them—John père, Nancy, Laura, John fils—knew that as long as no one but family and elders knew the identity of the volunteer pedophile, no one could properly understand the nature and scope of the cover-up they all continued to commit through Sunday.
“I failed to report a volunteer who came to me for pastoral counseling” is wildly different from “I failed to report that my son admitted to me that he is sexually aroused by children, despite knowing my status as senior pastor of this church in particular, and a celebrity Christian more generally, facilitates his access to them.”
I admit the penny didn’t drop for me until someone else pointed it out, but an obvious question has been hanging in the air since February: Why would a church volunteer who had already confessed his darkest secret to his pastor also confide in… Danny? The answer was right there if you asked who would be close enough to both Danny Lavery and John Ortberg, Jr., to tell both of them about having intrusive sexual thoughts about children. I just want to spell that out, because a lot of people are going get hung up on whether Danny should have named his brother publicly at all.
The Ortbergs are not stupid people, so I can’t imagine they really believed that no one would connect the dots. They have had an exceedingly generous amount of time and space to consider what to do when this fact became public knowledge.
If you acknowledge that your brother told your father, a famous religious leader, that he has pedophilic compulsions, and that said father did not prevent said brother from continuing to work with children, what do you possibly hope to gain by declaring other parts of Danny’s account “full of half-truths, lies, and exaggerations”? Like, he got the details right about your whole family conspiring to hide, at best, a powder keg of potential abuse, but you believe he fudged… something else? Who gives a shit? What is wrong with your heart?
John Ortberg, Jr., has made millions promoting himself as a moral and spiritual authority.
The Ortbergs made the choice not only to “protect” Johnny in the shallowest, most self-serving way possible—by keeping his secret—but to lose Danny over it. Danny’s public and (recently revealed) private statements on the matter have been full of anguished love for his family, compassion for his brother’s affliction, and concrete suggestions for healing and accountability. His father, mother, sister, and brother decided, together and separately, to accept estrangement from Danny so they could maintain their morally incompetent response to this deeply painful situation. They could have offered the same understanding and compassion to both Ortberg sons, appreciating Danny’s bravery in holding them to account while supporting Johnny in his efforts to find a way forward without harming anyone, including himself. Instead, they chose continued secrecy over a truly loving response to either one of the brothers.
Why am I so furious about this, though—like, personally, viscerally, hypertensively?
I’ve known Danny through the internet for years and am very fond of him, but we’re not tight. I used to follow and occasionally chat with Laura on Twitter, so I was disappointed to see her choice in this matter but not gutted like her friends have been. I am not an evangelical Christian or a believer of any kind. I am not the tiniest bit surprised by pedophilia among the churched, institutional cover-ups of same, or powerful men choosing their status and reputation over genuine, selfless love for their children. So why did I stay up late last night, rubbernecking all of the Twitter commentary I could find on the matter, while feeling increasingly moved to punch a hole in the wall?
This morning I realized it was those tweets of Laura’s that set me off, representative as they are of the unbearable gaslighting of it all. Danny is a liar, an exaggerator, a teller of half-truths—no, not about his brother’s attraction to children or his father’s covering it up, but about, you know, something. Danny is lashing out, breaking away, as one church elder put it during a town hall. As though a man in his early thirties merely threw a petulant fit to establish his own identity apart from his parents.
“Interesting thing about unwanted thoughts,” that elder, Beth Seabolt, said later in the same town hall. “I had several people write in about OCD. Doesn’t every one of us have unwanted thoughts? … No crime in coming in to ask for help with unwanted thoughts.”
Look at what she does there, rhetorically.
Conflates sexual attraction to children with a significantly less stigmatized and more easily treated thought disorder.
Then immediately downgrades it further to something “every one of us” experiences.
Then underscores that there was no crime reported, and in fact, it was just someone asking for help with that thing every one of us experiences!
In three sentences, she turns a confession of pedophilia by a church youth leader into a brave request for help with a perfectly ordinary problem—nothing to see here, folks.
And of course she’s not going to tell them the name of the volunteer, because that would instantly bring down the whole house of cards.
As for the “no crime” bit, in Danny’s various statements, he mentions that all this first came to light because John III’s laptop was stolen, and he was afraid of what someone would find on it. So, first, he wasn’t suddenly moved by the spirit to seek spiritual counseling or share the burden of this devastating affliction with his family. He “asked for help with unwanted thoughts” only after there was a chance that he might be found out.
And second, what was on that laptop?
To be excessively charitable about it, I can think of a few things that would be highly incriminating without rising to the level of a crime. A “Virtuous Pedophiles” account. Pictures of clothed children going about their lives. A diary about his unwanted thoughts. Perhaps that’s all it was.
But you know what else people who feel sexually attracted to children often have on their laptops?
And did you know—I did not, before listening to the CBC’s harrowing podcast, Hunting Warhead—that the preferred term for what we used to call “child pornography” is now “child abuse materials”? Because that’s exactly what it is. Someone abuses children to create those images, and then people who are sexually aroused by images of children being abused create a financial incentive for such abuse to continue and expand.
I don’t know that John Ortberg III had child abuse materials on the laptop whose disappearance occasioned his confession. But I know that if he did, we can dispense entirely with the notion that no crime was committed and he is not responsible for physical, mental, and emotional harm coming to any child. I would like us all to be very, very clear on that point.
In any case, the answer to why I am so furious about this, in particular, once again comes down to the kyriarchy, the pandemic, the narcissistic, fascist dullard, and the sense of being powerless, trapped, and hopeless. Because what the Ortbergs have done to Danny during this unprecedented time for their family is exactly what our practically and morally useless leaders have been doing to all of us during an unprecedented time for our country. Casting truth-tellers as mentally unstable, agenda-driven troublemakers. Making the problem worse while lying remorselessly about the problem’s very existence. Dissembling and DARVOing to beat the band. Protecting the busted status quo instead of taking measures to protect human beings. Acting from fear instead of love.
I’d say it’s all very un-Christian, but as a cynical atheist, I honestly think it’s right on brand for 21st-century American Christianity.
And I know saying that just gave Christians who are unsure what to think about all this the license they need to dismiss everything I’ve said above.
Oh well. I’ve been honest here. Ask yourself who has not.
As a Christian, I don’t disagree with you in the slightest—I have also been following this story with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach all week, hoping for real confession/repentance/accountability/change from the church, and my sick feeling is deeply linked to what you say about this being sadly on brand for 21st century American Christianity. Cheap platitudes as a substitute for the costly work of repentance and repair. Cheap invocations of ideas of original sin/nobody’s-perfect-theory as a cover for structural abuse of power and a justification for failure to reform—as if “I used my position of power to put children at risk” is in any way analogous to “I sometimes lose my temper/eat more ice cream than I should”. Rejection of truth, when acceptance of the truth would cost more than the recital of a formula. Rejection of *people*, where acceptance of them would cost more than a vague “I love x but he is very troubled” escape. Rejection, above all, of true humility, of accepting real accountability to others—even others who don’t comply with your belief system—and accepting truth and love and *correction* from people you would prefer to patronise.
I have read John Ortberg’s books, at a time in my life when I was depressed and looking for a way to handle depression within my Christian worldview. I remember being upheld by some parts of his work while being uneasy about other aspects—there’s a kind of slipperiness, a refusal to name specific acts and behaviours and choices, in the way that he (and many in my tradition) talk about sin and grace and repentance and love and reconciliation. I used to think this stuff was just a bit sloppy and emotionalised but I now think it’s a disguise for something much worse: a way of eliding and avoiding abuse of power, conflating mistakes with deliberate infliction of harm and conflating repentance as an emotional state with the real work of accountability and restitution.
I am very sad about this. Sad for Daniel and his family’s failure to accept him and his gifts—above all his gift of moral clarity and compassion—and of course sad for the children who have been put at risk and his brother who has not been given the advice and support that is really necessary for someone with his condition. I am still a Christian because I believe that God is not in these structures of power and concealment and that God is always on the side of truth, justice, and the protection of the powerless, that Daniel’s voice at this time is far more a prophetic voice than his father’s has been. But I feel ashamed to be a Christian too when I look at what’s going on in my church globally and how much time we have had to be taught this lesson and yet how resistant we are to learning it.
As a Christian, clergy even (which sometimes I almost want to apologize for given how poorly many clergy behave), I absolutely agree with your assessment here. Every word of it. I, too, have been following this very closely and am just absolutely appalled at the level of corruption - not surprised, given the state of our country - but furious that this has happened. And, at the same time, I'm heartbroken for Danny and his wife and the terrible things that people have said about them and to them.