www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/bs-md-merzbacher-vigil-20120606,0,5683307.story

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Merzbacher sex abuse case could get new accuser

Prosecutors to discuss new claims against teacher in the 1970s

By Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

10:26 PM EDT, June 6, 2012

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Baltimore prosecutors are scheduled to meet Thursday with a woman to discuss further allegations of sexual abuse against John Merzbacher, a former teacher at the Catholic Community middle school in South Baltimore.

It appears to be the first time that such allegations have been raised with prosecutors since the 1990s, when Merzbacher was charged with dozens of counts of child sexual abuse from his teaching days 20 years earlier. He was convicted in 1995 in his first of what were to be 14 trials and is now involved in an appeals court proceeding that some fear could lead to his early release from prison.

"I want my day in court," said Donna Berger, now 48.

Merzbacher's attorney in the appeals case, H. Mark Stichel, declined to comment, saying that a new criminal case against his client would be "beyond [the] scope" of his representation. Merzbacher has not been charged with a crime related to Berger's allegations.

Berger, who still lives in Baltimore, joined roughly 200 others Wednesday night in a candlelight vigil outside the building that once housed the school on the 1500 block of E. Fort Avenue. The ceremony, held on the 18-year anniversary of a classmate's funeral, was arranged to commemorate the victims and to show the court system that former students, along with their friends and families, are willing to stand strong to ensure that Merzbacher, 70, remains behind bars.

He was convicted in 1995 of child rape and sexual abuse for crimes committed against student Elizabeth Murphy in the 1970s, and sentenced to four life terms in prison, which led criminal cases involving 13 other students to be dropped. But a federal judge has since ruled that Merzbacher should be offered a plea deal that his lawyers neglected to tell him about years ago.

The Maryland attorney general's office is appealing the ruling in a proceeding that will take months to play out. But those who say he terrorized them aren't willing to wait to see if he stays imprisoned.

They've have reached out to politicians, shared personal recollections of abuse with the news media and met with Archbishop William E. Lori to garner support. Berger went so far as to call the Baltimore state's attorney's office after first having a heart-to-heart discussion with her family, many of whom joined her at Wednesday's vigil.

She says the Archdiocese of Baltimore has recently agreed to begin paying for her counseling.

"I want my justice," Berger said, wiping tears, and holding a sign that said "R.I.P Lindy" in honor of her sister, who died of brain cancer in 1995.

By pursing a case against the teacher today, Berger said, she hopes Merzbacher would receive another prison term and spare others from the possibility that he would be released. "I just never want another child to go through that," she said.

In a letter to Catholic officials in Rome, she outlined the allegations she plans to discuss with prosecutors. At first, the abuse was psychological, she said: Merzbacher used a chalkboard pointer to lift the skirt of her school uniform in class, called her filthy names and snickered at her embarrassment. But then, he made her stay after school one day, covered her mouth with his hand, and raped her, she said, beginning three years of sadistic sexual torture that often involved other students and was ignored by teachers and administrators.

Merzbacher destroyed her life, Berger said. She's never learned to trust anyone, she over-parented her own daughter out of fear, and she built up a wall around herself that's so thick she doesn't think anyone will break through.

"It's a terrible life," she said.

Her accusations mirror those of others in many ways, including Elizabeth Murphy's — Merzbacher's only official victim, according to court records. Though the state pursued criminal cases involving 14 students, Murphy's was the only one to go to trial. The others were dropped after prosecutors won a conviction and the life sentences in Murphy's case.

Now, some have vowed to ask prosecutors to reopen their cases or bring new ones if it means keeping Merzbacher locked up. Berger may be the first to act.

Messages left with Sharon Holback, chief of the Sexual Offense Division within the Baltimore state's attorney's office, were not returned Wednesday. And spokesman Mark Cheshire declined to discuss Berger's meeting, saying it's office policy not to "comment on the pending matters."

At the vigil Wednesday, Murphy spoke of her former classmates who've died young. The state named three of them as victims in the criminal cases against Merzbacher.

Katherine Micolowski died of renal failure in 2008, when she was 49, depression medication on a table beside her. Bryan House died in 2005 when he was 41. His former wife has declined to say what took his life, but a brother has said depression played a role.

And Eddie Blair died of a narcotic overdose in 1994, at age 34. His funeral was held on June 6 that year.

"Eighteen years ago, a small group of us stood around Eddie's coffin with candles in our hands. On that day, I said to Eddie … that his life was meaningful and that his death would not be meaningless," Murphy told the crowd. "As Eddie had the courage to stand up for truth and justice, we his companions on the journey, once again, stand and will light our candles as a sign of our commitment to his sacrifice and our promise to carry on the struggle."

Three pink balloons were released Wednesday to symbolize Blair, House and Micolowski, along with a purple balloon to represent others "suffering alone in silence." White balloons were also set free, signifying the victims' release from Merzbacher's hold.

"We will no longer allow anyone … to have power over us," said Joe Wehberg, who said he witnessed abuse that has been described in court documents.

Murphy met with Archbishop Lori last week to ask for his help in keeping Merzbacher imprisoned.

He had signed an online petition supporting the efforts on the May 16, his day of installation. And meetings with Merzbacher's former students, who've shared their stories with him, have since "cemented his previous contention that Merzbacher's release would only cause further harm to his victims and endanger more children and the community," archdiocesan spokesman Sean Caine said in an email.

"Archbishop Lori is hopeful that tonight's vigil will bring some peace and comfort to those who attend," Caine wrote Wednesday, "and pledges his continued support for their healing and for the healing of all victims of child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore."

In an interview, Murphy said Lori came across as genuinely concerned during their meeting. But she stopped short of saying he gave her hope.

"He was certainly apologetic and understanding, but at this point and time, for me after the long history of this, and how many people at the diocese I've met with … I'm waiting to see action," Murphy said.

Anything else is "just crumbs."

tricia.bishop@baltsun.com

twitter.com/triciabishop

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