December 4, 2019
Alison Knezevich
Baltimore Sun

The former pastor of a Dundalk church pleaded guilty Wednesday to a sex offense against a student when she was 17, in what Baltimore County prosecutors described as a coercive relationship more than a decade ago.

Baltimore County prosecutors said Cameron Giovanelli, now 42, used his position of authority at Calvary Baptist Church to pressure the girl — who babysat for his family and attended the church school — into sexual activity in 2007. She reported the incidents to police last year, when she was in her late 20s.

As part of a plea agreement, Giovanelli pleaded guilty to a fourth-degree sex offense and second-degree assault, both misdemeanors.

Prosecutors dropped other charges, including sexual abuse of a minor, which is a felony.

Giovanelli, who now lives in Orange Park, Florida, faces 90 days in the county detention center and five years of probation. Under the plea agreement, he would be able to serve probation in Florida and would not have to register as a sex offender.

Sentencing is set for Jan. 6.

The former pastor did not comment on his case during a hearing in Circuit Court on Wednesday. Defense attorney Peter O’Neill declined to comment after the court proceedings.

Giovanelli was the pastor of the independent, fundamentalist Baptist church on Manchester Road from 2004 to 2014.

The former student, Sarah Jackson, has written about the case on her blog and discussed it on a podcast. The Baltimore Sun does not typically identify victims of sexual crimes, but Jackson gave permission to use her name. After the plea hearing, she said she wanted to wait until sentencing to comment.

In court Wednesday, prosecutor Francis Pilarski laid out the state’s case against Giovanelli, saying incidents had occurred at the school and at Jackson’s grandparents’ house.

One day in January 2007, Giovanelli pulled Jackson out of an English class taught by his wife and took her to an upstairs office, where they kissed for the first time, Pilarski said.

At the time, Jackson was 17 and Giovanelli was 29, the prosecutor said. They began meeting regularly and the sexual contact eventually included touching and oral sex, he said.

He said Giovanelli used his position of authority to coerce Jackson.
“She would not have consented otherwise,” he said.

During the hearing, Judge Robert E. Cahill Jr. asked Pilarski whether Jackson understood the terms of the plea agreement.

“I’m very sensitive to victim’s rights in these cases,” the judge said.

Pilarski replied that prosecutors had taken Jackson’s input into account when negotiating the agreement and that she believed it was “in her best interest.”

County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said in an interview later that his office was “conflicted” about not going to trial, but the plea agreement helped ensured certainty for the victim.

The church’s current pastor, Stacey Shiflett, attended the hearing with other church members and said they have tried to support Jackson since she came forward.

The church has about 400 members, Shiflett said.
Shiflett said he, too, was a victim of a sexual crime when he was 17 and that Jackson’s case inspired him to tell his own story.

“This whole situation has just galvanized my resolve to try to help put a stop to this,” he said.

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