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Former pastor Giffin faces 6 rape charges

Published: Fri, February 20, 2009 @ 12:10 a.m.

By Peter H. Milliken

The former Cornersburg clergyman used his authority to take advantage of the woman, a prosecutor alleges.

YOUNGSTOWN — Dale Giffin, who resigned as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Cornersburg last fall, has been indicted by a Mahoning County grand jury on six counts of rape.

The indictment, returned Thursday, alleges Giffin, 59, of Topaz Circle, Canfield, raped a parishioner while she was a young adult between 1993 and 1996. The reported offenses occurred in various places, including Giffin’s office, the Canfield Road church basement and sacristy, and in Giffin’s car and residence.

Giffin could not be reached to comment late Thursday.

Each rape count is a first-degree felony, carrying three to 10 years in prison upon conviction. That means Giffin could serve anywhere between three and 60 years in prison if he’s convicted of all counts, depending on whether the sentences are minimum or maximum, or in between, or concurrent or consecutive.

Dawn Cantalamessa, assistant county prosecutor, said the pastor sexually abused the parishioner beginning when she was 15. “He had groomed her from the time she was a minor,” the prosecutor said.

Because the statute of limitations then in effect has expired, however, the charges in the indictment pertain only to crimes allegedly committed during the accuser’s young adulthood, the prosecutor explained.

The accuser, now residing outside Ohio, turned 18 in 1989, and she came forward with the charges in August 2008, the prosecutor noted.

“He was seen as her authority figure. She was from a broken home. She considered him like her dad,” Cantalamessa said. “He used his status and his position with the church to take advantage of this young girl.”

Giffin gave her a summer job at the church, helped her get into college, and got her a job when she graduated, Cantalamessa said.

The case was investigated for four months by the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Department, said Lenny Sliwinski, commander of the department’s headquarters division.

Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, leader of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, said in a statement: “I’m aware that Dale Giffin has been indicted by the grand jury on six rape charges. In November of 2008, Mr. Giffin resigned his call as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church ,and he also resigned as a pastor in the ELCA.

“Prior to that, I had been in conversation with Mr. Giffin concerning allegations of sexual misconduct against him that were brought to my attention by several women. He did not admit any misconduct to me but he nevertheless resigned.

“The Northeast Ohio Synod does not tolerate sexual abuse or sexual misconduct of any kind. During and since that time, I have been in conversations with leaders of Zion Lutheran Church about this situation. The Northeast Ohio Synod has continued to provide care and support to the congregation. I pray that those who have been affected by this situation will be comforted by God’s grace and healing presence.

“During this time, I ask for prayers for Zion Lutheran Church, the women and their families and for Dale Giffin and his family.”

Bishop Eaton said he resigned Nov. 16 from the church and also resigned from the clergy roster of the ELCA, though he was not asked by her to do so.

“This is very difficult for the congregation,” Bishop Eaton said. “This pastor was there for nearly 30 years ... that makes this all the more devastating because he held a position of trust.”

She noted that Giffin was involved in significant building projects and ministries of the church.

Ron Novak of Canfield and his wife have attended Zion for nearly 15 years. “I had hoped that something would be done because of these allegations of misconduct and the fact that he was in charge of the day care and with scholarships. I don’t want this to happen someplace else,” Ron Novak said. “I’m relieved this wasn’t swept under the rug.”

Novak said some members of the congregation have questioned what was going on. “When we would question him [Giffin] about our concerns, we were told if we weren’t happy there to go somewhere else.” Novak said he does think some members left. Bishop Eaton said she had visited Zion Lutheran last week to check on how the church and its staff were doing. She previously had met with the congregation, staff and church council. “We are working on trying to find an interim pastor,” she said.

Bishop Eaton noted that even under good circumstances when a longtime pastor leaves, the congregation must adjust. “This congregation has experienced trauma and hurt. They need time to heal,” she said. “We want to find the best person” she said about assigning an interim pastor.

The synod staff said Zion Lutheran reported a baptized membership of 2,327. The pictorial directory for 2008 has some 200 photos and 593 names of members.

Bishop Eaton, who was elected in 2006, said that Linda Hilliard, pastor of spiritual growth and pastoral care, and Frank Gross, pastor of preaching and teaching at Zion, are fulfilling pastoral duties at the church in the interim.

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