MANASSAS, Va. (FOX 5 DC) - It’s a potentially dangerous loophole in Virginia law: church leaders who suspect child abuse are not mandated to report it.
After a child sex abuse scandal at a Manassas church, former members realized they needed to fight for change, and now, that’s paying off. Lawmakers in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates have proposed laws that would put clergy on the list of mandated reporters.
Hannah Hudson, Liz Thomasson and Kristin Frazier attended The Life Church where a former youth pastor was convicted of sexually abusing a 16-year-old church member. Baird was then re-arrested, accused of abusing a different teen around the same time period, in 2014. The second trial is set for February.
Hudson was subpoenaed to testify in the first case.
“Because of inappropriate texts that Jordan had sent me a few years back,” Hudson said.
Even though she was an adult at the time, prosecutors wanted to establish a pattern of behavior by Baird.
A Facebook post by The Life Church shows the church’s own account of the timeline of events. The post says the church became aware of an “allegation” against Baird on June 10, 2016.
“The church’s investigation revealed no criminal activity,” it reads. “On July 13, detectives from Prince William County made the church aware of the police investigation.”
A former church lay pastor and the mother of the victim in the case both tell FOX 5 that the church made no efforts to involve police. A spokeswoman for The Life Church says that Senior Pastor David Baird, who’s also Jordan’s father, did not call police because initially he was only aware of an allegation that his son sent inappropriate text messages to a minor.
“I was disappointed and sad, “ Hudson said of the church’s handling of the allegations. “You know, you want people to make the right decisions.”
It was only then she and the other two church members realized clergy are not mandated to report suspected child abuse in Virginia. The law that makes people like teachers, doctors and daycare workers criminally liable if they fail to report has an exemption for clergy.
“I think it’s human nature to protect the institution, always,” Frazier said. “We see it in every aspect of our society.”
They decided to go to Richmond to talk to lawmakers.
“Basically just went office to office just to see if anybody would bite,” said Hudson.
“There was a lot of hurt and anger that I had for a long time that, thankfully, was then channeled into this energy,” said Thomasson. “To say, ‘I still can make change.’ I can’t make change (at Life Church), but I can protect children other ways.”
Their efforts paid off. State Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Upperville) confirmed she is sponsoring a bill that would make clergy mandatory reporters.
“The real catalyst for this bill has been the Prince William issue and the proactive wonderful people who took it on,” Sen. Vogel said in an email.
Del. Karrie Delaney (D-Fairfax/Loudon) has already drafted a bill on the House side.
“I think people hear about clergy abuse and immediately think about the Catholic Church scandal,” said Delaney.
She said she realized there was a broader need for the legislation after hearing from the former members of The Life Church.
“I think it’s incredibly inspirational that they took a really sensitive and tragic event that happened in their church community and have turned it into this kind of advocacy,” said Delaney.
Delaney’s bill would create an exemption for information revealed in a confessional. The bill has support from the Virginia Catholic Conference.
“On behalf of our state’s two Catholic dioceses, the Virginia Catholic Conference supports Delegate Delaney’s bill. It strengthens protections for children and respects religious doctrines and practices. We supported the same proposal in 2006 and hope it will be enacted this session,” said Jeff Caruso, Executive Director of the Virginia Catholic Conference in a statement.
The young woman Baird was convicted of abusing, Morgan Harding, tells FOX 5 she’s humbled and grateful to see these efforts to change the law.
“It’s amazing to see how God has used this for good,” Harding said. “This is why I chose to come forward so that others wouldn’t have to go through what me and so many other girls have.”
Her mother, Gloria, adding: “This legislation will protect and save the lives of many. Not only will it hold a level of accountability to all clergy in reporting sex offenders in their own churches, but it will help to establish the church as a safe place to be again, which it should have always been.”