Wednesday, February 24, 1999
Misunderstood, says pastor
By Cathleen F. Crowley
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.
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 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.
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
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
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
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
''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
Outside the courtroom, Rev. Nissley himself said he often touches
''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
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
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
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