Virginia on track to make religious leaders mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse

Virginia is on track to make religious leaders mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse after the state House of Delegates and Senate unanimously passed a bill inspired by a child sex abuse scandal at a Manassas church.

Several former members of The Life Church say they were hurt and angry after a former youth pastor was convicted of sexually abusing one teenager, and then re-arrested on charges he abused a second teen.

As they looked into the laws surrounding what happened, they found out in Virginia, religious leaders are not considered mandatory reporters of child abuse.

While teachers, doctors and daycare workers can all be held criminally liable if they suspect child abuse and don't report it, in Virginia there's an exception in the law for members of clergy.

Hannah and Luke Hudson, Liz Thomasson and Kristin Frazier set out to change that. They say they went door to door in Richmond, speaking to lawmakers, and eventually inspired a senator and delegate to introduce a bill. Hannah Hudson said she was amazed by how many people came to testify.

"It was a pretty emotional experience," said Hudson. "So we feel grateful to everybody who has taken time to write to their delegates and their senators in support of this."

The bill proposed by State Sen. Jill Vogel (R-Upperville) unanimously passed the General Assembly, and now goes to Gov. Ralph Northam.

"We're not at the end, but we're definitely seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and it's exciting," Hudson said. "To see this pass through unanimously with so much support from the government has been so encouraging."

Senate Bill 1257 adds religious leaders including ministers, priests, rabbis and imams to the list of mandatory reporters. It exempts clergy members from the mandatory reporting requirement when the information "is required by the doctrine of the religious organization or denomination to be kept confidential," like in the Catholic confessional.

Former Life Church youth pastor Jordan Baird was convicted last year of sexually abusing a 16-year-old girl from the church in 2014.

Baird was later re-arrested, accused of abusing a second teen in that same timeframe. That trial is scheduled to begin on February 25. The young woman's family is also suing Life Church for $21 million.

The church did not go to the police when initial accusations against Baird came to light. A church spokeswoman says it's because they were unaware of any physical contact. But others believe it was an effort to protect Baird, who's the son of the head pastor.