Former Pastor Convicted of Molesting Young Girl
One Family Stunned, Another Relieved by Johnson Case Verdict
By Karen Florin
The Day [New London CT]
December 16, 2006
As his wife, daughter and two former parishioners watched in disbelief, former Norwich Assembly of God pastor Charles L. Johnson Jr. gave his Bible and other personal belongings to his attorney.
Found guilty Friday morning of sexually assaulting a young girl, Johnson then departed meekly with judicial marshals.
The six members of the jury had entered the room with grim expressions, and one, who works with young children, sobbed as Court Clerk Martha Morrarty polled each juror to confirm the guilty verdicts for first-degree sexual assault and risk of injury to a minor.
Judge Stuart M. Schimelman raised Johnson's bond from $150,000 to $500,000 and set sentencing for Jan. 26.
The former pastor faces two to 30 years in prison and will be required to register as a sex offender when he is released. In taking his case to trial, he had rejected an offer from the state of a two-year sentence, with the right for his attorney to argue for less time at sentencing, in exchange for a guilty plea.
Johnson, who is 53, had led the Protestant evangelical church for 22 years until he was forced to resign in 2002 amid allegations that he engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior with two women.
Last year, the daughter of one of those women disclosed that Johnson had grabbed her and groped her twice during social gatherings at the pastor's house in 2000 or 2001.
"We're very relieved, especially for our daughter's sake, and pleased that justice has been served," the girl's father said in a phone interview Friday afternoon. "We thought this was going to be the verdict anyway, believing that six unbiased people can come up with the right answer."
The state was unable to present information about the prior allegations of misconduct. There was no physical evidence, since the incidents were not reported for more than four years, and prosecutor Theresa Anne Ferryman's case had relied heavily on the testimony of the victim, who is now 15 years old.
"It was what it was," Ferryman said. "They found (her) credible and were able to hear everything they needed."
The young woman, now a high school junior who has skipped grades because she is an "advanced" student, had calmly recounted from the witness stand how Johnson grabbed her in an upstairs hallway in his house while she was running from other children during a hide-and-seek and tag game.
She said he put his hand up her shirt the first time and stuck his hand down her pants and touched her inappropriately on the second occasion.
The jury, which had deliberated since Wednesday afternoon, requested a copy of her statement to police. They were not allowed to see it, since it had not been entered into the case as an exhibit.
Jury foreman Ulysses Hammond, an administrator at Connecticut College and an attorney who had a 22-year career as a judicial administrator, could not be reached for comment Friday afternoon.
In defense of Johnson, attorney Peter Bartinik Jr. had pointed to the young woman's inconsistent descriptions of the incidents in court testimony and during interviews with police and investigators for the state Department of Children and Families.
Bartinik said somebody at the pastor's house party would have heard the girl if, as she described, she yelled, "Stop! Stop!" when he attacked her.
He had presented about 15 character witnesses who testified that Johnson was a moral man who would never harm a child.
"I'm shocked by the verdict," Bartinik said Friday afternoon. "I think a conviction based on this evidence is proof that no one is safe from an allegation of this kind from anybody, and we all have to be very careful who we associate with."
Bartinik said an appeal is unlikely.
"As a lawyer, the thing that makes you not sleep at night is the thought than an innocent person goes to jail," he said.
Church members were divided when the allegations surfaced, but many stood behind Johnson and his family. He and his wife, Cynthia, have five children, ranging from 11 years old to adult.
Bonnie Nicholson, a former Assembly of God member who had testified, watched the verdict Friday morning and comforted Johnson's wife and oldest daughter, who were "beside themselves," Nicholson said.
"It's just such an injustice, I can't stand it," she said in a phone interview during the afternoon. "I cried all the way home."
Nicholson said Johnson has "a very, very deep-rooted faith in God."
"I know that's the only thing that will get him through right now," she said.
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