Baptist leader accused of sexually abusing teen turns himself in, denies allegations

Cameron Giovanelli
Cameron Giovanelli | BaltimoreCountyMD.Gov

A Florida pastor listed in a lengthy exposé published last year on sexual abuse in fundamentalist Baptist churches has turned himself in amid allegations he sexually abused a teenage girl on church grounds over a decade ago. 

Cameron Shane Giovanelli, 42, the associate pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, was arrested in Maryland Tuesday for actions he's accused of committing while serving as pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in the Baltimore suburb of Dundalk.

According to the Baltimore County Police, Giovanelli has been charged with sexual abuse of a minor, perverted practice and fourth-degree sexual offense stemming from alleged sexual contact he had with a 17-year-old student at the church's school between January and August 2007.

The abuse is said to have begun with "unsolicited kissing" and progressed over time. According to police, the abuse is said to have begun "taking place nearly daily either within the school offices on church property or at other off-property locations." 

"Based on the information provided by the victim, police believe it is likely there are additional victims who were abused by Giovanelli during his time as pastor at the church and school," a probable cause statement from the county police reads

Giovanelli was released from jail on his own recognizance under the condition he has no contact with any minor. The Baltimore Sun notes that Giovanelli faces up to 25 years in prison for the charge of sexual abuse of a minor, 10 years on the perverted practice charge and one year on the fourth-degree sex offense charge. 

Giovanelli has denied the charges but turned himself in to Baltimore County Police as part of an agreement made through his attorney, the Baltimore Sun reports.

The accuser, 29-year-old Sarah Jackson, was the granddaughter of an associate pastor and also the babysitter for Giovanelli's children. She alleges that she was abused several times by Giovanelli when she was a senior in high school. 

Jackson had been open about the experience, first reporting it on social media in 2018 and then continuing to open up about it on her blog, which is titled "Letters of Freedom."

On her blog, Jackson described a "secret" relationship she had with Giovanelli, who at the time would have been in his late 20s or early 30s. She detailed that she felt heartbroken when Giovanelli ended the relationship when he moved to California. She accuses the pastor of betraying her trust as a child and trying to take her virginity. 

"I have cried. I have prayed. I have watched my character, integrity and my family be shredded for speaking up," Jackson tweeted on Tuesday in response to news of Giovanelli's arrest. "Today, God's timing was revealed. Today, Cameron Giovanelli was arrested for sexually abusing me in high school."  

According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, which highlighted Giovanelli in its Baptist sex abuse exposé last December titled "Spirit of Fear," Giovanelli denied the allegations in a lengthy post on his website in June. 

In the post, Giovanelli called Jackson a "liar" who is dragging his name through the mud. However, that statement no longer appears on his website. 

"For over one year I have allowed her to smear my name, seek to destroy my reputation, and harass my family through social media," Giovanelli was quoted as saying in the statement. 

His defense attorney, Peter O'Neill, told The Florida Times-Union that his client "emphatically denies these allegations” and intends to “vigorously defend” himself in court.

Giovanelli, who now resides in Orange Park, Florida, was also listed as the president of the new North Florida Baptist College set to open in the fall of 2020. But The Florida Times-Union reports that his name has since been stripped from the school's website.

He had previously served as president of Golden State Baptist College. 

North Florida Baptist College also lists as its chancellor Greg Neal, the pastor at Immanuel Baptist Church in Jacksonville who was investigated by the Clay County Sheriff's Office in 2011 after being accused of secretly videotaping women while they undressed.

But the sheriff's office was not able to prosecute those claims because they were outside the statute of limitations. 

As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported, Jackson told the current pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Stacey Shiflett, about the allegations before going public with them in 2018. 

“I’m really glad the detectives sunk their teeth into this because I knew if they did, they would find probable cause,” Shiflett told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. 

The Christian Post reached out to Immanuel Baptist Church for comment on Giovanelli's arrest but no response was received by press time. 

Likewise, a call to North Florida Baptist College seeking comment was not returned by press time.

Follow Samuel Smith on Twitter: @IamSamSmith

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