After an emotional six-hour court hearing Wednesday, a Charles County judge sentenced a former Waldorf minister to 18 months in jail for repeatedly sexually abusing his 12-year-old stepdaughter throughout the spring of 1992.
John Joseph Damba, one of the co-founders of the Gathering Place church in Waldorf, was sentenced to 10 concurrent years--all but 18 months of which was suspended--for the abuse, which took place over several months in 1992 at the family's home in Waldorf. The victim, who is now 20, came forward to report Damba to the police this year after the emotional effects of the abuse resurfaced during premarital counseling.
In the lengthy sentencing hearing, Judge Steven G. Chappelle heard testimony from the victim, whom he called "brave," and from a string of Damba's supporters and Gathering Place church members who described Damba's deep anguish over the repeated incidents of sexual fondling.
Indicted in May on eight counts of child abuse and third-degree sexual offense, Damba pleaded guilty to reduced charges of two counts of child abuse in September.
Chappelle chastised Damba at the end of the hearing, saying that any man who went into a 12-year-old girl's bedroom to touch her sexually was committing a "cruel and evil act." Damba, 42, told his stepdaughter Wednesday that he was ashamed of what he had done.
The young woman read from a prepared text with her head bowed, frequently overcome by emotion. She said that while she had initially forgiven her stepfather for the abuse, years of hurt and confusion had followed.
"Nothing healed the pain," she said. "I still felt alone." She said that finally confronting the abuse, going through counseling and notifying the police has been a freeing experience. "I feel like I am myself again," she said.
Throughout the hearing, Assistant State's Attorney Jessica Collins attempted to show that Damba had little remorse over his past actions, playing a tape of an April telephone call from the victim to Damba.
"You've ruined my life," Damba was heard saying on the tape.
Collins also read parts of Damba's statement to police in which she said he attempted to equivocate about the abuse, at one point saying: " 'Fondling' is incorrect. I touched one breast. I did not touch the other. I touched, not 'fondled.' "
His wife, Darlene Damba, described a "broken, weeping" Damba who begged for his wife's and stepdaughter's forgiveness shortly after the girl told her mother of the abuse in June 1992. The mother said they tried family counseling and used Christian healing books. However, the victim said she had not gone to counseling at the time.
The Gathering Place, a nonaffiliated Christian church established in 1996, has been shaken by the allegations against Damba, who was asked to step down from his position as "worship minister" shortly after the allegations surfaced this spring. The 100-member congregation has been deeply divided--with members supporting either the Dambas or the victim, who no longer attends church there.
"Mr. Damba has manipulated his religious community into shunning her," Collins said during the hearing.
Church Pastor Paul Goodwin disagreed.
"We're really praying for the families, that there will be healing and restoration," Goodwin said. "There are no winners in a situation like this. It saddens the whole church community."