Friends Say Ex-Pastor a Moral Man

By Karen Florin
The Day [New London CT]
December 13, 2006

Former Norwich Assembly of God Pastor Charles L. Johnson Jr. loved children and children — including the girl who now claims Johnson molested her five years ago — loved him, according to several friends who testified on his behalf Tuesday in New London Superior Court.

The defense portion of Johnson's sexual assault trial got under way with about a dozen character witnesses who said he was a man of integrity who took in people in need, traveled to Honduras to comfort orphan children and treated members of his church like family.

"I've never seen the man do anything that I think is inappropriate," testified Bonnie Nicholson, who said she has known Johnson for 20 years.

"I'm telling you, I don't think the man could do this. I've watched him many years," she said.

Johnson, 53, is accused of inappropriately touching a 9- or 10-year-old girl two times in 2000 or 2001 when the girl and her family went to his house for a social event. The girl, now 15, testified last week that Johnson grabbed her and groped her on two occasions on the second floor of his house as she was running from other children during a game of hide-and-seek/tag.

Eighteen-year-old Rachel Franklin, who was friends with the girl while both of their families attended the church, said the girl would run up to Johnson and hug him each week after church services.

"She would go up and see him and talk to him and she would come back to our friends," Franklin testified. She said she never saw anything in the girl's demeanor to indicate that something bad happened.

Prosecutor Theresa Anne Ferryman cross-examined the first few character witnesses to make the point that sexual misconduct does not generally occur in public, so these people could not truly know whether Johnson had exhibited "sexually inappropriate behavior." Ferry did not question the last several witnesses introduced by defense attorney Peter Bartinik Jr.

A phone company technician, a correction officer, a school bus driver, a day-care administrator and a former minister all said Johnson was beyond reproach and that they trust him with their children.

"He absolutely has always been appropriate with children," testified Jennifer Bierkan, the former minister. "He's a man of integrity."

The state's case will depend largely on the jury's perception of the alleged victim's credibility, since there is no physical evidence. The girl's parents have also testified for the state, along with Norwich police Detective Patrick Mickens, who investigated the crime, a teacher and school social worker and an investigator from the state Department of Children and Families.

Though there is a complicated history between the Johnson family and the girl's family, the jury will only be hearing the accusations involving the child. The girl's mother and two other adult church members claimed Johnson had touched them inappropriately, sparking an internal church investigation that led to his resignation in 2002. He had been Assembly of God pastor for 22 years.

Judge Stuart M. Schimelman ruled that based on case law, the other accusations — which never led to criminal charges — would not be part of the trial.

"While I understand the state would like to bring to the attention of the jury his alleged prior misconduct with adults, he is not charged with adults," Schimelman said Tuesday when the issue came up again as the state began cross-examining the defense witnesses.

The defense portion of the trial continues today.

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