After months of grooming and emotional manipulation, Sarah Jackson says the pastor of her Maryland Baptist church called her into his private study and kissed her. She was 17, trembling and numb, while he was 29, married with children. It was the first time she had ever been touched this way.
That was Jan. 3, 2007. The date was imprinted in Jackson’s mind as sexual abuse continued over the ensuing months. Jackson claims the pastor, Cameron Giovanelli, used it as a secret code to initiate intimate text conversations. Giovanelli would text “Jan,” and if she was alone, she would reply “3rd” ― signaling that the coast was clear for him to text freely.
Thirteen years later, Jackson has become a vocal advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. And on Jan. 3 this year, she was composing a victim impact statement to read out loud at a Baltimore County court at Giovanelli’s sentencing for sex offense and assault.
“What you did to me could have destroyed me but I need you to know that I’m stronger than you have made me feel all these years,” Jackson told Giovanelli in court on Monday. “I no longer hold your secrets.”
“One day you and I will both stand before God who cannot be manipulated by your words like so many still are, and He knows the truth and I’m so grateful that He does,” Jackson added. “Despite what you did to me, He still finds me worthy of love.”
Baltimore County Circuit Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. sentenced Giovanelli to 90 days at the county detention center and five years of probation for a fourth-degree sex offense and second-degree assault. As part of a plea deal reached in December, prosecutors dropped an original felony charge of sexual abuse of a minor and agreed Giovanelli won’t have to register as a sex offender, according to The Baltimore Sun.
Giovanelli’s attorney said Monday that his client “accepts responsibility” in the case, the Sun reported.
Jackson is now a 30-year-old married mother of two living in a small community north of Baltimore. She has said she was compelled to come forward with allegations against Giovanelli in 2018 after the birth of her first child made her realize she wanted to protect children from abuse.
She told HuffPost that she believes no amount of jail time could account for the abuse she endured from her former pastor.
“Is 90 days ideal for the crime he committed? Absolutely not,” Jackson wrote in an email. “But, what is a harsh enough sentence? 5 days, 5 months or 5 years. Nothing will take back what he did to me 13 years ago.”
“All I am trying to focus on, is the fact that I got this far. That is huge,” she added. “We now have the opportunity to spread a message that regardless of the amount of years that have passed, you CAN be heard.”
Giovanelli was the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Dundalk, Maryland, between 2004 and 2014, the Sun reported. The church is independent fundamental Baptist (IFB), part of a loosely affiliated network of deeply conservative evangelical churches in the U.S.
In her victim impact statement, Jackson described how Giovanelli started grooming her for abuse in 2006. Giovanelli held several positions of authority in Jackson’s life at the time. Not only was he her pastor, he was also a teacher at the church school she attended, she said. According to Jackson, Giovanelli also hired her as a babysitter for his children and assigned her to work as his office aide.
His abuse continued over several months, Jackson said, and eventually included touching and oral sex,
“It was extremely hard to know what was going on behind closed doors and then sit in a pew and listen to this man preach about purity, marriage, integrity. ... It made me question a lot,” Jackson told HuffPost.
Later in 2007, another church leader discovered what was happening and intervened. Giovanelli volunteered to resign as pastor, an offer that was declined, Jackson said. Conversations between the pair slowed and Giovanelli convinced her to keep silent to protect both of their reputations, she said.
The ordeal left her “alone, embarrassed and confused” and with no idea how to process what had happened, she said in her victim impact statement. She also said the abuse has taken a “physical, emotional and mental toll” on her health.
“When someone asks you who your first kiss was, you can’t say it was your adult pastor when you were a child in school,” she said in her statement. “Even though he was out of my life, he still was affecting my life and had me living as someone I didn’t want to be.”
Giovanelli continued working at Calvary Baptist Church for several years, after which he became president of California’s Golden State Baptist College, an independent, fundamentalist Bible school in Santa Clara. He resigned from that post after Jackson reported her allegations to police.
Giovanelli has also been involved with starting a new IFB college, North Florida Baptist College in Jacksonville, near where he now lives. He was slated to become president of the school this year, according to The Fort Worth Star-Telegram. North Florida Baptist College did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment on whether Giovanelli still holds that position.
Independent fundamental Baptists are distinguishable from other streams of evangelicalism by their desire to separate themselves from mainstream U.S. society. While practices can vary from church to church, independent fundamentalist Baptists often home school their kids, refrain from engaging in pop culture and share a fierce loyalty to the King James translation of the Bible. IFB churches also don’t have the hierarchical denominational structures that unite more mainstream evangelical groups, like the Southern Baptist Convention.
Rev. Ashley Easter, an abuse victim advocate who was raised in an IFB church in Virginia, said that it’s common for children in these communities to not receive adequate education about sex and sexuality. (In her victim impact statement, Jackson said that she was raised in an “extremely sheltered and religious atmosphere,” with no sex education other than to keep herself “pure” until marriage.)
“I personally experienced an extreme lack of sexual education which made the abuses I experienced all the more difficult,” Easter told HuffPost. “This lack of knowledge about sex and sexuality creates a greater vulnerability for children, teens, and young adults victimized by abuse because they have not been given language to understand what is happening to them, let alone the language to describe and report it to a safe adult.”
In December 2018, an investigation by the Star-Telegram uncovered hundreds of abuse allegations against IFB leaders in the U.S. Survivors claimed that IFB pastors are treated as if they were chosen by God and beyond reproach ― a culture that ensures that predator pastors are protected. Giovanelli was one of the accused pastors cited in the report.
Easter said that too often, IFB churches try to handle abuse inhouse or use unqualified individuals to help create their safety protocols.
“IFB churches, and all churches, should receive training about abuse response and prevention by qualified experts such as licensed trauma therapists, trained domestic violence prevention advocates, and police,” she said.
Jackson told HuffPost she believes that sexual abuse has been a taboo subject in IFB church communities for too long. She said churches should stop worrying about their reputations and treat sexual abuse for what it is ― a crime.
“You’ll be far more respected by the outside world if you are protecting people from predators and doing so boldly,” she said.
Despite the abuse she faced from her pastor, Jackson said she’s managed to hold on to her faith. And she’s determined to keep speaking up for others who are victims of abuse in Christian communities.
“I may never truly know why God allowed it to happen, but that doesn’t mean that God neglected me,” she told HuffPost. “There is a reason and I will continue to try and use this situation for His glory. I will continue to try and make a change in churches and protect the next generation of ‘Sarahs.’”
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this story gave the wrong locale for North Florida Baptist College.