A US court is due to decide within a few months whether a Catholic school teacher currently serving four life terms for child rape and other crimes, should be freed.
John Joseph Merzbacher, 71, is arguing before 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond that his former attorney failed to give him a chance to take a proposed plea deal in late 1994. The federal appeals court heard arguments on the issue last month.
Reporting on developments in the case, The Baltimore Sun said that Merzbacher, in one of a number of incidents in the 1970s, had a pre-teen student pinned to the ground in his Baltimore classroom.
The girl’s blouse was open and her chest exposed when the doorknob suddenly turned and the school principal — a nun — burst in.
The screaming girl thought she was about to be rescued, according to court records that describe the scene at the Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point. But Sister Eileen Weisman, who had a key to the room, merely chastised the teacher John Joseph Merzbacher for locking the door.
[Weisman] looked down and her exact words were ‘John, oh John, I told you never to lock the classroom door.
The victim, Linda Tiburzi, who described the incident in a civil court deposition in the mid-1990s, said in a recent interview.
And then she looked at me and said ‘I never want you staying after school again.’ … That’s all she said, that’s all she did, there was nothing, there was no investigation, there were no questions.
That incident is one of several outlined in court documents, analysed in a Baltimore Sun investigation, indicating that Weisman and other Catholic officials were aware of the lay teacher’s sexual abuse of students in the 1970s but did not report it until Merzbacher was criminally investigated in the 1990s.
Recent accounts from more than two dozen former pupils and a review of hundreds of pages of documents describe several situations in which critics claim the church had opportunities to protect schoolchildren from Merzbacher, but did not notify police of the allegations against the teacher.
The alleged failures took place in two phases. In the 1970s while the abuse was occurring, Weisman and at least two archdiocesan priests ignored the behaviour, even when confronted with it directly.
Years later, Weisman and archdiocesan officials delayed reporting Merzbacher to enforcement agencies, despite a victim’s allegations of abuse.
Weisman, a nun with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, denied knowledge of the abuse in 1994 in her only public comments on the matter. Catholic officials did not make her available for interviews the newpaper’s investigation,
As court hearings continue, some of those identified in earlier court filings as victims of Merzbacher say they believe the Archdiocese of Baltimore failed to protect students and should take responsibility for the exploitation.
The archdiocese, which has given cash settlements to some former students who claim abuse, said its officials were not aware of the abuse until 1988 — years after it ended. In a lengthy statement in response to questions from The Sun, spokesman Sean Caine said the Church didn’t realise it was obligated to report the allegations when it first learned of them. He added:
The archdiocese has seen how his monstrous actions have destroyed many lives. Any time a child is abused it is an awful tragedy, and we again offer our apologies and pledge our support to those who were abused by John Merzbacher, and their families.
But court filings describe more than a half-dozen examples in which church employees — including Weisman and several priests — were allegedly told about students’ claims and did not intervene or alert authorities.
In court records, former students describe Merzbacher as a charmer who drew them in with rock records, forbidden foul language, alcohol and marijuana, then terrorized them. The potbellied English teacher beat the boys and humiliated the girls, engaging in sexual acts with both genders and forcing the kids to turn against one another. He once fired a revolver in class, students testified during Merzbacher’s trial, and routinely used the weapon to threaten children with death.
According to this report, Merzbacher kept the gun in his desk drawer, often brandishing it in class. At least two of them recount the teacher pointing the weapon at them and threatening to kill them if they ever revealed his secrets.
A 32-year-old painter who has testified before a grand jury in the case said:
In the mornings, he would send me over to the utility closet to make coffee for him. Then, he’d come in behind me, close the door and rape me. Day after day. For three years. After the first few times, I would just go numb.