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A pastor was arrested for soliciting sex from a child. Then the politics kicked in.
Virginia Pastor John Blanchard's case has become a political football
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Let’s all go down a very deep rabbit hole together. The case involves an alleged predator pastor, but the isolated incident has turned into a political football involving several attorneys, a police chief, and a Republican lawmaker.
It starts with Pastor John Blanchard of the non-denominational Rock Church in Virginia Beach, VA. He’s a conservative Christian who, in October of 2021, spoke alongside his wife in front of a local school board, urging them to reject a policy allowing transgender students to use the proper bathrooms. According the The Virginian-Pilot, they said giving trans students that option “would put girls at risk of being assaulted.”
Less than a week later, the pastor who warned about girls being put “at risk” was one of 17 men arrested during an undercover sting going after men “soliciting sex from minors through online and social media platforms.” Taking a page from the To Catch a Predator playbook, law enforcement officials captured the men when they arrived at a motel thinking they were going to meet an underage girl.
Blanchard was back in the pulpit just two days later after being released on $20,000 bond.
There was no mention of his arrest.
There was no mention of the fact that, if convicted, he faced up to five years behind bars.
It didn’t take long for news to spread that he was one of the men arrested in the sting, though, and Blanchard soon stepped down as pastor. The church issued a brief statement in lieu of any substantive response:
“We are all committed to walking in integrity and truth at Rock Church International and will continue to take steps to do so,” the church’s statement said.
“As followers of Christ, we must remember that redemption, salvation, grace, mercy and healing are all gifts given to the children of God. Although everyone must address their own convictions and consequences, our assignment as believers is not to condemn, but to be agents of God’s love, healing, justice, and reconciliation.”
The statement also offered thanks for the outpouring of support the church has received since news of the arrest broke, and asked that the Blanchard family’s privacy be respected “while they walk through this difficult journey together.”
The church didn’t say anything of note when a former church employee accused Blanchard of sexual assault weeks later. (She pressed charges, but Blanchard was acquitted.)
Blanchard resumed his life outside of church, where he traveled for business and raked in approximately $30,000 per month.
Over the next year, all the action occurred behind the scenes, as is often the case when there’s legal wrangling involved. Blanchard was set to go on trial in October of 2022, about a year after his arrest, but suddenly, all the charges against him were withdrawn. The county attorney said she would nolle prosequi the case—meaning she wouldn’t pursue it right now but would keep the door open to reversing course in the future.
The church didn’t hesitate to comment about that… and treat it as an absolute victory:
… The prosecutor in a statement to the Court indicated that due to new information coming to light and lack of evidence, they will no longer be pursuing charges against Pastor Blanchard. This exoneration comes after nearly 11 months of delays and continuances. The defense attorney stated Tuesday that he was pleased with the outcome.
Following the proceedings on Tuesday, Bishop Anne Gimenez stated “We have always believed in John’s innocence. His humility and submission to those over him during this time has been a testimony to his character. He has spent the time in fasting and prayer and has invested much of his time in his family and education. We anticipate his resumption of church duties in the near future.”
It was unclear what “new information” had come to light. Similar trials against the other men arrested in the sting were still moving forward. Why was Blanchard’s situation any different?
It was also quite a leap for the church to declare Blanchard’s “innocence” just because the case was withdrawn. (Not pressing charges doesn’t necessarily mean he did nothing wrong.)
But he didn’t resume his duties immediately. That’s because Delegate Tim Anderson, a Republican attorney who was elected to the Virginia State House in 2021, wanted to get more answers. He filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain the police report from the arrest, and found that what Blanchard had done was virtually identical to what the other men had done. So why were charges against Blanchard dropped while the others were ongoing?
According to police, John Blanchard of Virginia Beach, who was 51 years old at the time, contacted the detectives asking if “she” — believing he was speaking to the woman from the ad — was available in Richmond. The detective replied saying she was near a mall in Chesterfield, and Blanchard said he would travel to her.
Blanchard indicated he was looking for a “qv,” which, according to the police report, is a phrase in the sex trade meaning “quick visit.” The detective asked for $80 for this visit, which later changed to $70.
During the conversation, the detective sent a message saying “she” was actually 17 years old and asking whether that was okay with Blanchard. The detective also sent a messaging asking Blanchard if he was “ready for this young tight kitty.” He responded asking for her location.
Anderson, for good reason, wanted to know why Blanchard’s case wasn’t going anywhere:
“In my legal opinion, from what I have seen, there’s no excuse not to prosecute this case,” he told 8News on Friday. “If he’s found not guilty or if he’s acquitted, that’s one thing. But to use prosecutorial discretion and say nothing happened here, that’s, in my opinion, an abuse of discretion, especially when they went after 15 other people.”
To be sure, no one was saying “nothing happened here.” It was possible, albeit unfortunate, that prosecutors just didn’t have the burden of proof they needed to go after him. But how could they not have the proof? It seemed like such a slam-dunk case.
Anderson kept up the attack on Stacey Davenport, the Commonwealth's Attorney of Chesterfield County, who had the ultimate authority to reduce or drop charges against those men. (Davenport, a Republican, is running for re-election later this year.)
Whether for political convenience or genuine frustration, Anderson demanded she go public with her reasoning for why the charges against Blanchard were dropped:
… I will talk about this every week until your November 2023 election. Or you can do the right thing and start treating these cases seriously, and then I go away.
Do the job you were hired by the people to do. Or resign.
Setting aside that political fight, the church responded with a message on its home page indicating that Blanchard would not, in fact, resume his church duties anytime soon. Maybe they knew what was coming.
… Rock Church encourages godly lifestyles by all of its members and leaders, in keeping with the tenets of the Bible. The Church condemns sexual immorality of any kind and in any form by its members and leaders and especially holds its leaders to a high standard of accountability on any lifestyle choices that could reflect negatively on the reputation of the Church or disparage the character of the Savior whom it purports to represent.
Rock Church is committed to honesty and integrity in dealing with charges or accusations of sexual misconduct or immorality among its leaders and will support any investigation arising from accusations of violation of this standard among its staff and leaders in an effort to find the truth and to protect its members, church families and their children, at all times.
Under the guidance of our legal counsel, We cannot make a statement or comment concerning the accusations against Rev. John Blanchard at this time... Pastor Blanchard has voluntarily stepped back as lead pastor and from all his ministerial duties until this present situation is totally resolved…
Davenport soon responded with an explanation for why Blanchard’s case was dropped.
She said that she could still theoretically go after him, but in short, the conversations the detectives (whose posed an an underage girl) had with the various men were all different in small ways, therefore the evidence available in each case was slightly different as well. In Blanchard’s case, she said, there wasn’t enough evidence to prove “guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” (More on that in a moment.)
That was good enough for Rock Church.
On December 4, Blanchard re-emerged from his “difficult journey” (at the 49:32 mark) with a message for his enemies:
“For the sake of the church, I have kept quiet until now, but only because that is what legal council has advised me to do. Which has been very difficult to do, by the way,” said Blanchard. “To ignore, quietly, all the lies and smear campaigns against me and this Church. Against all of us, really.”
Blanchard recalled how he says he has been the subject of vicious and inhuman accusations.
“These statements are demonstrably false. You can dress up a lie, you can twist it, you can misrepresent it. But, I’m sorry, a lie is still a lie.”
Blanchard went on to say that “particular organizations and individuals” have made it very clear that they “intend to destroy our church, my family, and this ministry.” Shortly after, he announced that they are moving forward with legal actions.
“This matter will be addressed in a court of law,” said Blanchard. “I believe the word of the Lord over me and this house that God will shut the mouth of the liars. God has spoken his promises to this house, and they will come to pass.”
It was all a lie, he claimed. It was all a smear campaign against him and the church and the members of the church, and probably Jesus, too.
What was the “lie”? Who knows.
Who wanted to destroy his church? Beats me.
Who was he going to file a lawsuit against? No clue.
Meanwhile, the criticism of Davenport kept getting louder.
Last month, Chesterfield County Police Chief Jeffrey S. Katz issued his own statement questioning why the charges were dropped. He also pointed out that Blanchard’s attorneys attempted to hide all the details of this case from the public—and Davenport agreed.
… I have recently learned that Mr. Blanchard’s defense counsel made a motion to seal all police or court records, transcripts, and investigative records associated with this case. Our Commonwealth’s Attorney has decided to consent to render these records unavailable to the public, which - upon approval by a judge - would make sharing of these transcripts, the report, or any other documents, previously released under FOIA a crime. From my vantage point, this is bewildering.
1. Rents a car,
2. Texts a phone number posted on a known sex worker website,
3. Solicits a “qv” (“John” lingo for a “quick visit”),
4. Makes multiple inquiries if the person he’s texting is “affiliated with law enforcement,”
5. Drives two and a half hours to a hotel and knocks on the hotel room door - as directed by our undercover “17-year-old,”
I believe a jury of Chesterfield County residents deserves to weigh in on the matter of criminal culpability.
Katz added dropping the charges was “NOT due to a lack of evidence or a substandard investigation.” He argued that there was ample evidence of Blanchard committing a crime, and it was absurd to not use all that against him.
But there was an explanation for why Davenport wanted to seal the records. If someone is charged with a crime, but not convicted, that person can ask for the arrest records to be sealed from public view. It’s a reasonable request!
There was, however, an open question of why the charges against Blanchard were dropped when just about all the other charges, against all the other men, who did pretty much the same thing he did, had not been.
It was impossible to answer that question without getting into details of the case. Davenport was in an admittedly awful situation. Even if we assume she had good reason to drop the charges, her inability to explain that reasoning to the public was a horrible look.
It also meant Blanchard got to take a victory lap even if he was only able to get off due to a technicality.
Anderson, the Republican attorney, has since tried to intervene in the case. If the prosecutor won’t go after him, he argues, then he will. He has also posted screenshots of the text messages between Blanchard and the “girl” as if to show how easy this case ought to be:
There’s one very interesting takeaway from those text messages that could explain why Davenport’s office felt they couldn’t go after Blanchard. After the “girl” says “im 17,” Blanchard never actually acknowledges that. He just responds by asking where to meet her.
According to the police report obtained and made public by Anderson, Blanchard claims he didn’t know her age and “his response did not address that statement.” Since one of the charges against him is “Solicitation of Prostitution from [a] Minor,” that lack of confirmation that he’s aware of her age could be crucial to his defense.
Still, Anderson felt like that whole exchange was enough of a smoking gun. He added that if Blanchard’s wife tried to sue him in retaliation, he wanted to be able to use the police records in his defense and subpoena Davenport’s records. He couldn’t do that if the case was sealed from the public. So he still had good reason to criticize Davenport.
A hearing on his motion is scheduled for March 21.
All that pressure may have had an impact. At the very least, it created new leads.
A few weeks ago, Davenport announced that she was going to ask a court to appoint a special prosecutor to decide whether charges should be (re-)pursued against Blanchard. She cited new information “provided to my office less than 48 hours” prior to making that statement.
If you believe her, it’s a win-win. The decision to prosecute would no longer be in her hands, and if that special prosecutor moves forward, she can defend her lack of doing the same earlier by citing that newer information.
(That information, provided to her by Katz, involves a video connected to the case that Katz says “validates our assertions that Blanchard knowingly sought to engage in sex with an underage girl in a Chesterfield County hotel room.” So even if the text messages aren’t enough, this video may do the trick, whatever it reveals.)
We’ve learned something else in the past few weeks too. There’s evidence that Blanchard’s attorney offered a deal to the court: Don’t go after my client, the pastor, and he’ll take “counseling for sex offenders.” He even came to a hearing with evidence that Blanchard had already participated in one session. That session, however, took place in a “another mega church” and there was no reason to believe it was legitimate counseling. Indeed, a county attorney rejected the offer for that reason.
Still, the case against Blanchard was dropped shortly after that, which only added to the belief that something shady had taken place between the two sides.
A judge appointed a special prosecutor to the case just a few days ago. That’s where we’re at now.
Which means, after two years of drama involving a pastor arrested for soliciting sex from a supposed child, we’re only now at the point where there… may or may not be enough evidence to prove he knew exactly what he was doing.
This could have been a slam-dunk case against Blanchard. Even if a judge or jury determined there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him, the county attorney would have earned support for simply pursuing the case. Instead, by not pursuing the case, for whatever reason, she’s opened herself up to a barrage of avoidable criticism.
Virginia Mercury columnist Bob Lewis summarized Davenport’s self-own very well:
She’s left a door open for Republicans who might challenge her for the nomination. Appearing unsteady in the handling of Blanchard’s case also gives oxygen to the malignant foolishness advanced by conspiracists who claim a cabal of pedophiles controls major public and private institutions of national power.
More broadly, it feeds the cynical notion that justice needn’t apply to favored people in powerful positions, only to the poor and powerless – a notion that’s poisonous to the rule of law and the free civil society it sustains.
While all this is happening, Blanchard’s position as a powerful preacher isn’t getting the attention it deserves. His faith-based hypocrisy—from pretending to care about the safety of teen girls by attacking trans rights to delivering sermons against a “Jezebel spirit”—should be a major focal point. He’s a graduate of the famously conservative Oral Roberts University.
The church has defended him over and over, for years, despite all the evidence confirming that he’s the real threat to children even if, ultimately, he’s not convicted of a crime.
There’s no statement on the church’s website apologizing for not taking the situation more seriously.