By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun
8:30 AM EST, November 19, 2011
In Elizabeth Ann Murphy's case, it was the storage closet of her middle school in South Baltimore, not the locker room of a college team. Her attacker was her teacher, not a football coach.
But whenever Murphy sees the news coverage of the Penn State child sex abuse scandal, she is hurtled back to when she was an 11-year-old victim, helpless not just in the face of John J. Merzbacher, the teacher who repeatedly raped her, but also the indifference of other adults in the school who she says could have stopped the abuse.
"I'm 50 now — why does this bother me so much?" Murphy asks herself, before answering her own question. "It never really goes away."
Murphy needs little reminder of her ever-present past, but it's been hard for her not to see each revelation that emerges about Jerry Sandusky, the one-time Penn State assistant football coach indicted on charges of sexually abusing young boys, through the vantage point of her own experience.
As with Sandusky, the charges in the Merzbacher case are appalling. To read the court filings in either case is to immediately wish you hadn't; you know you will forever have a mind picture of some horrible detail, whether it's of a little boy with his hands pressed up against a shower wall or, as with Murphy, of a little girl being raped at gunpoint.
She and former classmates said Merzbacher terrorized them during their years at Catholic Community School during the 1970s. Violence was a part of the abuse: Former students said he kept a gun in his desk, even shooting it in class once, and used it to force them to have sex with him or each other and to punctuate his threats that he would kill their loved ones if they ever told on him.
"Merzbacher threatened my life. He threatened to kill my family," Murphy said. "When you're 11, 12, 13, when this teacher is pointing a gun to your head, you believe it."
While Murphy became the face of Merzbacher's victims, there were many more accusers, but it took years before they would come forward to authorities. Murphy's case went to trial in 1995, and Merzbacher was convicted of six counts of rape and sexual abuse and sentenced to four life terms to be served concurrently. After winning that case, prosecutors dropped more than 100 charges related to 13 other men and women who alleged Merzbacher also abused them.
It was a hard-won victory, though, and not all the accusers would survive. Several died in their 30s and 40s, from illnesses or overdose, and their relatives and former classmates would point to the aftermath of their childhood trauma as contributing to if not outright causing their early deaths.
Murphy herself struggled with addictions and other problems, and only now feels that she is righting herself. She paints houses for a living, although she earned a bachelor's degree in theology a couple of years ago, and hopes to earn a master's in pastoral counseling so that she can someday help other victims.
"You get such a late start," she said of the years lost to coping with the damage. "It took me many years to get sober."
Murphy said she feels Merzbacher being sent to prison is "the greatest justice," although she is worried about a pending case in which he argues he should be freed because his defense attorneys did not tell him about a plea deal that would have allowed him to serve just 10 years.
But she regrets that other adults who she believes "enabled" Merzbacher have not been called to task. Murphy said school and diocesan officials did not act on reports at the time of Merzbacher's abuse, allowing it to continue. While much has changed after such shocking cases as Merzbacher's, Murphy said incidents both within the church and at places like Penn State serve as reminders of how vulnerable children still are.
"It still just drives home how we don't protect our children," Murphy said. "It's always the institution."
It's a step in the right direction that Penn State officials have been fired for failing to do more about reports of Sandusky's alleged misdeeds, she said. But it was "horrifying," Murphy added, to see Penn State students rioting after legendary coach Joe Paterno's firing.
"Their parents needed to call them on their cellphones and say get back to your dorms and study," she said with a sigh. "But that's what you're up against. Even then, people believed the church. They didn't believe us."
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