Sarah Jackson said she was raised to trust men like Cameron Giovanelli, the pastor who led her childhood church in Dundalk.
So for years, she told a Baltimore County judge Monday, she struggled to make sense of everything that happened after Giovanelli first kissed her when she was 17 — the beginning of what prosecutors have described as a coercive relationship. Standing in court more than a decade later, Jackson had a message for Giovanelli, who pleaded guilty last month to a sex offense against her.
“I no longer hold your secrets,” Jackson told him as he sat silently with his attorney.
The Baltimore Sun does not typically identify victims of sexual crimes, but Jackson said she wanted to speak publicly about the case.
Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. sentenced Giovanelli to 90 days at the county detention center, followed by five years of supervised probation. The 42-year-old Giovanelli led Calvary Baptist Church for a decade, serving as pastor from 2004 to 2014.
Giovanelli did not address the court Monday. His attorney, Peter O’Neill, said at the hearing that Giovanelli “accepts responsibility" in the case.
Prosecutors say Giovanelli used his position at the independent, fundamentalist Baptist church to pressure Jackson into a relationship when she was 17 and he was 29. The sexual contact eventually included touching and oral sex.
O’Neill tried to persuade the judge to let Giovanelli serve the sentence on house arrest, saying the contact was consensual and that Giovanelli had no prior criminal record.
Giovanelli, a married father of three who has been living in Florida, formerly served as a chaplain for the county police and fire departments, O’Neill said. After leaving Calvary Baptist Church, he became president of Golden State Baptist College in California, but resigned amid Jackson’s allegations.
Prosecutor Francis Pilarski argued for jail time, saying Giovanelli abused his authority and violated the trust of his church, community and family.
Jackson, who attended the church school, reported her allegations to county police in 2018, saying Giovanelli had abused her. Giovanelli pleaded guilty to fourth-degree sex offense and second-degree assault as part of a plea agreement.
As a teenager, Jackson babysat for the pastor’s family and worked as his office aide. She said she grew up in “an extremely sheltered and religious” environment, describing confusion when he began texting her and showing other signs of interest.
She said she now recognizes his behavior as “grooming” her. The pastor, she said, “took things from me that I can never get back.”
“This was months of daily, calculated decisions by my pastor, my teacher and my boss,” Jackson told the judge.
Giovanelli, she said, opened a new line on the church’s phone plan so her parents wouldn’t recognize his number on their phone bill and discover how much they were communicating.
Once, when they were together in a church study, a youth pastor knocked on the door looking for Jackson, and Giovanelli hid her in the closet “like a used, dirty mop," Jackson said.
Under the terms of his plea agreement, Giovanelli can serve his probation in Florida. He will not have to register as a sex offender. Prosecutors dropped charges including sexual abuse of a minor.
Cahill ordered Giovanelli to have no contact with Jackson and not to post on social media about the case during his probation. Jackson told the judge that Giovanelli and his supporters tried to smear her after she went to police.
After the hearing, she said in an interview that she decided to come forward after having her first child.
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“I think it was becoming a mom that ... something clicked,” said Jackson, now a mother of two. "It wasn’t about me anymore. It was about protecting other people by telling my story.”