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Catholic officials knew of teacher's abuse, court files indicate

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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."

•Weisman went to the archdiocese for guidance after Homberg's allegations, telling officials that Merzbacher may have brought a gun to school and may have been "interacting inappropriately with the students." Merzbacher was placed on leave, but reinstated after Weisman said she conducted an internal investigation.

•Weisman witnessed Merzbacher choke, punch and kick a male student, Steven Melnick, in class, and "merely responded, 'Oh John, stop it.'"

Later, Weisman and the archdiocese also failed to report the sexual abuse to law enforcement, records allege, when a former student — Elizabeth Ann Murphy — raised it on at least three occasions. Murphy claims she told Weisman in 1979 and 1987, and notified archdiocesan priest George Moeller in 1988.

Five years later, Murphy confided in another former student, Bill Mannion, who happened to be a priest at the time but has since left the position. Mannion contacted the archdiocese on her behalf in 1993, and Murphy reached out to a lawyer, who called prosecutors. That led to a criminal investigation, Merzbacher's conviction and his lengthy sentence.

Although more than a dozen students were named in Merzbacher's criminal cases, only the case involving Murphy went to trial. After Merzbacher was convicted and sentenced, the cases involving other named victims were dropped by prosecutors.

Principal's neglect ignored

Archdiocesan officials declined requests for an interview about the Merzbacher case but said in a statement, "No one in authority at the institutional level (the Archdiocese as opposed to the local/school level) knew of any allegation of child sexual abuse by Merzbacher until 1988" when Murphy confided in Moeller.

The four-page statement from Caine, the archdiocesan spokesman, said archdiocesan officials did not alert authorities — police or the Department of Social Services — at that time because the archdiocese mistakenly believed it was mandated to report "only when the alleged victim was still a child."

Moeller said the same thing during Merzbacher's trial in 1995. He testified that Murphy came to him and he encouraged her to report the incident and offered counseling.

"That's part of our expressing a concern and reaching out to people," he said, according to a court transcript. When asked if he investigated Murphy's claims, he said he did not.

"I didn't do anything further, you know, after, after that, after that meeting," Moeller said in court.

A December 1993 attorney general's opinion, stating that all claims must be reported, cleared up the confusion. It acknowledged that the Maryland statutes "could reasonably be construed to apply only if the alleged victim were still a child," but added that "in the end, [they were] more convinced that the better construction of the language is that reporting is required whenever an act of prior child abuse or neglect occurred, no matter the present age of the victim."  From that point on, the archdiocese has "always reported every allegation of child abuse we receive regardless of how long ago the alleged abuse occurred," Caine said. 

Weisman, meanwhile, had left the South Baltimore school and become principal of the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in 1982. A statement signed by Archbishop William E. Lori in the Catholic Review newspaper last month — similar to the one Caine issued to The Sun in September — publicly acknowledged for the first time that Weisman's actions regarding Merzbacher led to her forced retirement from the Cathedral School.

In his statement to The Sun, Caine wrote that Weisman was barred in 2002 from holding "any position within the Archdiocese that involves overseeing the safety of children." Since then, he added, she has not held any assignment within the Baltimore Archdiocese and is not eligible for future work there.

That year, the Boston Globe published a series of award-winning articles exposing sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. They led to sweeping reforms and a bishops' "Charter for the Protection of Children & Young People" that prompted "a broader evolution ... of responding to child abuse cases," Caine wrote in a follow-up email.

The shift led an independent review board within the Baltimore Archdiocese, charged with reviewing the handling of sexual abuse cases, to expand its focus beyond the "perpetrator ... into an examination of how others must be accountable for creating safe environments and enforcing the Archdiocese's policies and procedures," Caine wrote. That ultimately resulted in the removal of Weisman, who had denied any knowledge of Merzbacher's abuse during a school assembly before parents in 1994.

The nun's provincial superior at the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Baltimore, Sister Kathleen Cornell, declined to answer questions or to make Weisman available for an interview. In a brief statement, Cornell said she recently met with Weisman about the allegations, in response to renewed complaints from former students, and that the past principal, along with other sisters "who know of the case," are "deeply saddened by the suffering of all of the victims of John Merzbacher."

None of the statements explains the interaction between Weisman and archdiocesan officials over the years.

Baltimore church lawyers learned of allegations concerning Weisman's failure to report abuse cases as early as 1994, in criminal filings and related civil suits. The lawsuits, which sought a collective $140 million from Merzbacher and the archdiocese, the oldest in the nation, detailed the worst claims in a series of depositions given over several years.

Other officials were aware of these allegations during Merzbacher's 1995 trial, said P. McEvoy Cromwell, who chaired the archdiocese's independent review board at the time and in 2002. No action was taken against the school principal, he said.

"We knew the events [Weisman was allegedly involved in] while the trial was going on, but decided that was not the time to take disciplinary action" against her, Cromwell said in a recent interview. "And then after that, it just slipped between the cracks."

During the mid-1990s, church lawyers were battling more than a dozen plaintiffs who had filed the potentially costly civil suits. Filings claimed the archdiocese and its agents "knew or should have known of Defendant Merzbacher's predilections and... improper actions" while they were going on in the '70s and that officials could have prevented the abuse had they "taken appropriate steps to terminate, suspend, reprimand, [or] discipline" Merzbacher or those supervising him.

The cases were never litigated, however. They were dismissed by a state appeals court, which ruled the statute of limitations for such claims — typically three years after the event occurs or the child victims reach adulthood — had passed.

"Society totally failed to protect these schoolchildren from repeated rapes, sexual abuse, other physical and mental abuse, and from being terrorized at gunpoint by Merzbacher," one appeals court judge wrote in a 1997 opinion lamenting the dismissals.

Merzbacher refused to answer any of the claims against him in those cases, repeatedly invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination during a 1995 deposition. A public defender who represented him during the criminal trial did not respond to messages seeking comment for this article. And an attorney currently representing Merzbacher in the federal appeals case has declined to discuss allegations against his client.

Weisman was never deposed in the civil cases, or called to the stand as a witness during the criminal trial. She has not been accused of a crime or named as a defendant in the civil suits.

It's unclear what Weisman does for the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Cornell did not respond to questions about her employment. Caine did not address her current work in his statement.

Did archdiocese know?

Some of Merzbacher's former students question whether the archdiocese knew more about the teacher's misconduct.

In court records, Gary Homberg, the former Catholic Community Middle School teacher, claims that he told Weisman and two priests — Derwart, now deceased, and Tillman — in 1974 that he "personally observed John Merzbacher sexually touching, molesting and fondling both male and female students" and was told to keep quiet about it or lose his job.

Weisman consulted with the archdiocese about Homberg's allegations "that Merzbacher was carrying a gun in school and that he may have been act — interacting inappropriately with children," according to a police detective's grand jury testimony. He did not say whether Weisman outlined any sexual abuse claims.

Caine said she did not. "In reviewing the case files it is clear that Sr. Eileen consistently denied any knowledge of sexual abuse by Merzbacher," Caine wrote in his statement. "Sr. Eileen recalls consulting with the Archdiocese only about the gun issue."

Tillman, now a retired priest in residence at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Towson, said in a brief interview that he did not know about the abuse until the 1990s.

"At no time [before then] did anybody in South Baltimore — teacher, parent, student — give me information about atrocities that John Merzbacher committed," he said. He added that he was "a bit defensive" about the idea that he withheld information.

In 1974, when Homberg claimed in a deposition to have met with them, Tillman and Derwart were priests at parishes affiliated with the Catholic Community Middle School — Tillman at Holy Cross and Derwart at Our Lady of Good Counsel.

Merzbacher was put on administrative leave while Weisman investigated the claims against him and reinstated shortly thereafter via a Feb. 22, 1974, letter from archdiocese attorney Joseph P. McCurdy Jr., which was submitted in court during the criminal case. That same day, the attorney sent a letter to Homberg advising him of his termination.

Homberg did not return messages seeking comment.

"If the diocesan attorney was involved in 1974, then the diocese was aware" of the allegations, Murphy wrote recently in a private Internet post she also shared with The Sun. She has spent years urging the archdiocese to acknowledge that it played a role in the abuse.

During Merzbacher's criminal trial, McCurdy — who was a Baltimore Circuit Court judge at the time — testified that he didn't conduct the inquiry and assumed Merzbacher had been cleared of wrongdoing when he was asked to write the letter. He didn't remember any allegations of sexual abuse, and said he thought claims against the teacher involved either bringing a gun or alcohol onto campus.

Reached by telephone recently, McCurdy, who retired from the Circuit Court in 2006, said he wasn't even sure about the claims of a gun.

"Upon reflection, wine or alcohol — that was the allegation, that was the only allegation that was ever made against him... it didn't have anything to do with child abuse," he said. He was able to testify during the trial, despite an attorney-client privilege, because the archdiocese allowed it, he said.

In his statement, Caine recognized the bitterness some victims may feel toward the church.

"We do not want our statement to be seen in any way as minimizing the very real and ongoing pain and suffering endured by Merzbacher's survivors, nor as a justification or excuse for any behavior, but rather as an attempt to explain to the best of our ability and information what we believe occurred," he wrote.

Caine said the archdiocese has a history of working with authorities on the Merzbacher case. As an example, he said the church wrote a letter to the Baltimore state's attorney's office in 1994 summarizing details "about 27 different individuals who may have been affected by Merzbacher or have relevant information" regarding his alleged criminal behavior. He did not provide the letter.

Caine also said the archdiocese is fighting Merzbacher's effort to be released from prison.

A U.S. District Court judge ruled two years ago that Merzbacher's criminal defense attorneys failed to offer him a 10-year plea deal during his criminal prosecution in the 1990s and that he should be given the chance to accept it now — which would lead to his immediate release. The Maryland attorney general's office is appealing the ruling. Arguments in the appeal were held last month before the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond.

In his statement, Caine said church officials "are willing and eager to do everything possible to keep Merzbacher in prison because of the feared impact his release would have on his victims, as well as possibly others. Although the Archdiocese has no formal role in the criminal process, our attorneys have also been in contact with state and local prosecutors to offer assistance in connection with keeping Merzbacher in prison."

Church officials have also urged Merzbacher's continued incarceration through letters to the editor and by signing an online petition.

And they've acknowledged the abuse through legal settlements with some of the students.

"It should be noted that the Archdiocese does not make such offers because of legal liability or statutory requirement, for there are none," Caine wrote in the statement. "Such offers are pastoral on the part of the Archdiocese and totally voluntary for the victims."

Several agreements reviewed by The Sun recognize the recipients' abuse as children through a written statement and a cash payment, typically enough to cover several years' worth of counseling. And they ask the signer to give up any future rights to sue certain parties, including Merzbacher and Weisman, though Merzbacher can be held legally responsible if he files suit first.

Such blanket releases are standard in settlement agreements, though some former students, including Murphy, have expressed chagrin over the inclusion of the teacher and principal.

One of the last people to sign a settlement agreement with the church was Linda Tiburzi — whom Weisman confronted in a Catholic Community School classroom decades ago, according to court records.

"I was thinking to myself, 'Oh thank God, she heard me [screaming], now she's going to help me, now she's going to report this,'" Tiburzi said in the recent interview. "But it was just the opposite."

In 2010, Tiburzi contacted the archdiocese at Murphy's urging. Tiburzi hoped, she said, that a settlement would cover counseling fees and lessen some of the hostility she feels toward the archdiocese.

But a week before the mediation, she learned of a new insult: A children's playground at the Cathedral School had been named in honor of Weisman, the former principal. A plaque at the site read: "Whether you go home by car, bus, or walk, you represent yourself, your school, and your family and we expect you to act accordingly."

"I was outraged," Tiburzi said. She demanded that the honorific be removed, and said that the archdiocese complied within 24 hours, as part of a settlement granting her $42,000. Caine would not discuss that settlement or other individual agreements.

The plaque, Tiburzi said, "should never have been put up. ... All [the abuse] could have stopped" if Weisman had intervened.

Tiburzi — who traveled by bus with other Merzbacher victims to the Court of Appeals hearing last month — said she met recently with Archbishop Lori and urged him to "turn over" to police all of the archdiocese's earlier findings regarding Merzbacher.

It's time, Tiburzi said, for the church to "be totally transparent."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

twitter.com/triciabishop

Timeline of allegations

Civil and criminal court records reveal a number of allegations made regarding John Merzbacher. Here are key events in his career, and claims made in cases involving him:

1972: The Archdiocese of Baltimore hires Merzbacher to teach English, reading, math and physical education at the Catholic Community School of South Baltimore for $6,100 per year.

1974: A teacher claims he tells school and archdiocesan officials that Merzbacher is abusing students. The principal consults with the archdiocese for guidance. Merzbacher is placed on leave, but reinstated after an internal investigation.

1979: Merzbacher quits to pursue "better job opportunities." Former student Elizabeth Murphy approaches the school principal, Sister Eileen Weisman, to outline allegations that Merzbacher abused students.

1987: Murphy again talks with Weisman, who allegedly tells her to "get on with your life."

1988: Murphy approaches an archdiocesan priest with the allegations. He tells her to inform civil authorities but takes no action himself. Archdiocesan officials say they mistakenly believed they were not required to report the incident because Murphy was no longer a child.

1993: Murphy alerts another priest to the abuse. He approaches the archdiocese and says he is assured that law enforcement will be notified. A lawyer alerts prosecutors on Murphy's behalf, launching an investigation.

1994: More than a dozen former students file civil lawsuits against Merzbacher alleging abuse. Weisman tells a school assembly that she did not know about Merzbacher's sexual abuse.

1995: Merzbacher is convicted of rape and sexual abuse, and sentenced to four life terms plus 10 years. Prosecutors drop other abuse cases; civil lawsuits are dismissed because they were filed too late.

2010: A U.S. District Court judge rules that Merzbacher should get a chance to accept a plea deal he was never told about during the criminal trial. It would release him from prison immediately. Maryland's attorney general appeals the decision.

Oct. 23, 2012: Oral arguments in the case are heard before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond. A decision is expected within the next several months.

SOURCE: State and federal court records

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