Candlelight vigil

About 200 people, some former students of the Catholic Community School, attended a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of teacher John Merzbacher, who was convicted of sexual and mental abuse of one of his students and accused of harming dozens more children. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / June 6, 2012)

The Catholic-school teacher had a pre-teen student pinned to the ground in his Baltimore classroom, the girl's blouse 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,'" 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, analyzed 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 behavior, even when confronted with it directly, according to accusations in court records. 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 for this article.

Although the alleged abuse happened decades ago, Merzbacher's case drags on. Now serving four life terms for child rape and other crimes, he is seeking to be freed, arguing that his former attorney failed to give him a chance to take a proposed plea deal in late 1994. A federal appeals court heard arguments on the issue last month.

As the 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 realize it was obligated to report the allegations when it first learned of them.

Officials cooperated with law enforcement in a 1993 investigation into Merzbacher's behavior, Caine said, and informed the Department of Social Services of allegations against the teacher that year.

"The archdiocese has seen how his monstrous actions have destroyed many lives," Caine said. "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.

"There is evidence that the Archdiocese of Baltimore knew this was going on in the school and swept it under the carpet," said Kathie Lewandowski. She was referring to an incident in 1974, when a colleague of Merzbacher's allegedly told superiors that the teacher was molesting students. Weisman, in a 1994 school assembly, said she was not told of any sexual abuse.

Lewandowski and her sister Mary were named as Merzbacher victims in civil and criminal cases filed against him in the 1990s. "Our parents put their children in the hands of Sr. Eileen Weisman believing they were paying for an excellent education for their children and entrusted her with our safety," Lewandowski said.

In court records, former students describe Merzbacher, now 71, 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, his accusers claim in the documents. He once fired a revolver in class, students testified during Merzbacher's trial, and routinely used the weapon to threaten children with death.

That part of the story has been detailed in media accounts since the allegations became public in court records 18 years ago. But the role administrators allegedly played in allowing the abuse to continue has never been fully aired.

Decades-old civil and criminal court records — which were filed in the mid-1990s after students came forward with the allegations of abuse and are stored in two cardboard boxes in the Baltimore circuit court clerk's office — reveal a number of claims made before Merzbacher quit in 1979. According to those records:

•Weisman failed to investigate after finding Merzbacher in a boiler room with a male student when he was supposed to be teaching. And she brushed off parent and student complaints about the teacher, including one in which a father said Merzbacher unclasped his daughter's bra. In another, a girl said she spotted a female child sitting on Merzbacher's lap with her underpants down around her feet; the principal is said to have explained that the child "was having a problem with the elastic in her underwear."

•Weisman and two archdiocesan priests — identified in court documents as Herbert Derwart and Richard Tillman — were involved in firing another teacher who said he brought concerns about Merzbacher to them in 1974. The officials allegedly told the teacher, Gary Homberg, that he could continue in his position "only under the condition [he] made no mention to anyone of [his] observations of John Merzbacher's sexual misconduct, the allegations and rumors about John Merzbacher, or the school's or church's knowledge of these allegations."