By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun
6:36 PM EDT, June 7, 2012
Baltimore prosecutors plan to look into new sexual abuse allegations from the 1970s against former Catholic school teacher John Merzbacher, according to his most recent accuser.
"They're investigating what I reported," said Donna Berger, 48. She met with a team of people Thursday morning — about a half-dozen prosecutors, detectives and victims' services representatives — to outline abuse that she says happened to her nearly 40 years ago, when she was a preteen at South Baltimore's Catholic Community middle school.
Merzbacher has not been charged with a crime related to Berger's allegations, and he might never be. It depends upon whether law enforcement officials deem her story credible and think they can make a case in court.
Berger came forward now after so many years, she said, because a legal technicality has led to the possibility that Merzbacher, who was convicted of child rape in a separate case, could be released from prison.
"If there's any chance that he could get out to harm another child, I will do everything in my power to stop him from being released," Berger said. "I don't ever want another child to face the horror that I did."
Mark Cheshire, a spokesman for the Baltimore state's attorney's office, said he couldn't discuss the meeting or comment on his office's plans "out of respect for the victim and in fairness for everyone involved." But he added that prosecutors are "committed to keeping this defendant behind bars."
More than a dozen of Merzbacher's former students from the 1970s were named as victims in criminal cases filed in the mid-1990s, though only one of the cases went to trial. Merzbacher was convicted of six counts of child rape and sexual abuse in that case and sentenced to four life terms, leading prosecutors to drop the other charges pending against him.
A federal court judge has put his incarceration in jeopardy, however. In a 2010 ruling, the judge ordered that Merzbacher must be offered a plea deal his attorneys neglected to tell him about before trial. The state's attorney general's office is appealing the ruling in a federal case that's expected to be heard later this year.
The idea that Merzbacher could win has set some on edge. Previously named victims have said they will press for their cases to be reopened if possible, and they've urged others who have remained largely silent — like Berger — to come forward.
She said she considered talking to prosecutors and police in the 1990s, when others were telling their stories, but decided against it. Her older sister was dying of brain cancer at the time, and the siblings thought it would be too much for the family to handle all at once.
Representatives from the Archdiocese of Baltimore visited her then, she said, during their own investigation of Merzbacher, who taught at the Catholic school from 1972 to 1979. She said she gave them her personal journal, which listed her allegations against Merzbacher in detail, including dates she and others were allegedly attacked.
She said she's recently asked for the diary back. In an email to The Baltimore Sun on Wednesday, archdiocese spokesman Sean Caine said "We have reviewed our files and do not have Ms. Berger's journal, nor do we have a record of ever having received it."
Berger isn't giving up, however. She said she mentioned the journal during the two-hour meeting Thursday in the hopes it was still around and detectives could locate it. She also sent a letter to Catholic officials last month, outlining her allegations against Merzbacher. She claims in the document, and also said she told investigators Thursday, that he repeatedly raped and humiliated her, and forced other students to take part.
The allegations are similar to those detailed in the criminal cases pursued years ago.
The meeting at the state's attorney's offices went well, Berger said.
"I feel great. I feel they did a fabulous job as far as being attentive to me and wanting to know my story and wanting to help me keep a child rapist in prison," Berger said.
She was offered counseling for herself and her family, she said, but declined because the Baltimore archdiocese has recently offered to pay for counseling, which she begins Tuesday. Caine, the archdiocese spokesman, said he couldn't confirm Berger's counseling specifically, out of privacy concerns.
"However," he added, "I can confirm that we offer counseling to anyone reporting a credible allegation of abuse by someone working or volunteering on behalf of the church."
Berger said she was told investigators would next begin "checking into [her] story" and that they would see what, if anything, develops from there.
"I actually felt like they took me serious and want to do what's best for me," Berger said. "Their main purpose is that he continues to pay for his crimes."
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