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Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Misunderstood, says pastor

By Cathleen F. Crowley
Eagle-Tribune Writer

LAWRENCE -- The Rev. Thomas W. Nissley says he is just a touchy-feelly kind of guy whose touches were misunderstood by a shy, teen-aged girl at his church.

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Lawyers for the Rev. Thomas Nissley said they put him on the stand so jurors could hear him say he did not molest a girl who attended his church. Here he described one incident when he came up behind her and touched her shoulders at a basketball game.
But a prosecutor said the former pastor of the United Presbyterian Church repeatedly touched the girl inappropriately on her thighs, shoulders and buttocks, even after her mother told him twice to stop.

Lawyers presented their cases yesterday at Lawrence District Court and the jury was expected to decide today whether Rev. Nissley is guilty of indecent assault on a child under 14.

He is accused of fondling the Methuen girl when she was 13 years old as he drove her home from the church, located on East Haverhill Street.

The girl, now 17, said in her testimony that Rev. Nissley rubbed her inner thigh just inches from her groin during the entire ride, which lasted about 10 minutes.

Assistant District Attorney Kim G. Carnevale said the girl tried to move away from him.

''She was pressed up against the glass,'' she said.

Ms. Carnevale described the girl as shy, introverted and not the type to speak out. The girl and her mother sat outside the courtroom for most of the proceedings.

Ms. Carnevale said Rev. Nissley began touching the girl, rubbing her shoulders, back and even her buttocks, since he came to the church in March 1994.

The girl's mother testified that she confronted the pastor twice and told him her daughter was uncomfortable with his touches. The first time, she said, she politely asked him to stop. The second time it was an order, she said.

Rev. Nissley said the mother never confronted him. He said he would have remembered that kind of conversation.

Rev. Nissley denied touching the girl's inner thigh during the car ride. However, he said he did touch her briefly to make a point as he asked a sensitive question.

Rev. Nissley said he had offered to drive the girl home so he could discuss her family situation. He said the girl's mother was in counseling with the minister, who is also a trained psychotherapist, for marital issues. He said he wanted to ask the girl if her father abused her.

Rev. Nissley said he briefly touched the outside of the girl's leg with the tip of his index finger when he asked the question.

''I find you get a more truthful response if you are making some sort of physical contact,'' he testified. ''The slighter, the better.''

In an interview outside the courtroom, a friend of Rev. Nissley said it was not uncommon for the pastor to touch and hug people he knew.

''He's a touchy guy,'' said Paul R. Alpert, of Lovell, Maine, who has known the minister for 30 years. ''He's the type of person who would come up and rub you on the shoulder. I would think nothing of it.''

Outside the courtroom, Rev. Nissley himself said he often touches people.

''Particularly people that I know,'' he said. ''I think everybody in my congregation would say that.''

Rev. Nissley, 65, is divorced and the father of two grown men. He now lives in Stamford, Conn., where he served as minister before he came to Lawrence's Presbyterian Church. After the Methuen girl came forward with the charges in 1997, Presbyterian church leaders banned Rev. Nissley from preaching, though he still has his title and gets a retirement pension.

Yesterday, he wore his minister's collar even though he admitted on the stand he often did not wear it even when he was a practicing pastor.

More than 30 well-dressed people, many older parishioners of the Lawrence church, packed the small courtroom yesterday. Judge Ellen Flatley repeatedly told spectators to be quiet and ordered the lawyers to speak up and stand closer to the microphones.

The girl's mother testified her daughter complained of Rev. Nissley's touches from the first few weeks he came to the church in March 1994.

In one incident about three weeks after he started, the girl said she was watching a youth basketball game in the church gym when the pastor came up to her and rubbed her shoulders. She told Lawrence Police Detective Arthur W. Waller Jr. he rubbed her back and shoulders for five to 10 minutes. Detective Waller testified to other incidents the girl said occurred at family gatherings the minister attended.

Rev. Nissley said he did grab the girl's shoulders at the basketball game and told her to go join the game.

''She straightened up and walked toward the players, which is what I wanted her to do,'' he said.

Rev. Nissley's lawyer, John M. LaCreta said the girl was hypersensitive and did not like to be touched by anyone.

Ms. Carnevale, the prosecutor, told jurors the case comes down to who they believe. The jurors are expected to come back with their decision today.

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