Charges of sexual abuse by former Catholic school teacher John J. Merzbacher were driven by "a giant rumor mill" after allegations that he fondled a student were investigated and dismissed by church officials, his lawyers said yesterday.
The lawyers, at a pretrial hearing, hinted for the first time at their strategy for defending Mr. Merzbacher on charges of sexually abusing more than a dozen students during the 1970s at the Catholic Community Middle School. And they raised the most detailed claims yet that officials in the Baltimore Archdiocese were told about at least one case of alleged abuse.
Mr. Merzbacher's lawyers also announced their intention to call the case's prosecutor to the witness stand in an effort to discredit the claims of alleged victims. M. Cristina Gutierrez said she would show that the prosecutor, detectives, several alleged victims and their lawyer in related civil suits gathered at a meeting "designed to ensure their stories mesh." Ms. Gutierrez said she will argue that "false" allegations of sexual abuse were leaked to students at the school and spawned rumors that have distorted the now-grown students' memories.
Contacted after the hearing, a spokesman for the archdiocese refused to say whether school officials investigated the teacher in the 1970s, but said the church would cooperate with any court orders. The spokesman, Bill Blaul, noted that civil suits filed against Mr. Merzbacher accuse school and archdiocesan officials of knowing of the alleged abuse and doing nothing about it.
Yesterday's developments took place on the scheduled starting date for the Baltimore Circuit Court criminal trial of Mr. Merzbacher, who faces more than 120 charges. Lawyers argued pretrial motions for about 2 1/2 hours, and the trial was rescheduled for Jan. 24.
Ms. Gutierrez received tentative approval to subpoena the alleged victims' and other witness' records from the school -- formerly Our Lady of Good Counsel School. She also is seeking the files of former teachers Charles Peck, who is said to be dead, and Gary Homberg.
She said the files will show Mr. Peck was fired after knowingly making false allegations about Mr. Merzbacher. Attempts to reach Mr. Homberg, who lives in Florida, were unsuccessful.
Judge Clifton J. Gordy said he would grant the motion to subpoena the records and told lawyers to meet with him tomorrow to review his proposed order.
Prosecutors Sharon A. H. May and Roberta G. Siskind said they would oppose Ms. Gutierrez's intention to call Ms. May as a witness.
But Ms. Gutierrez called the move "crucial to the defense theory" of the case.
After the hearing, Ms. Gutierrez acknowledged that she could call other witnesses to establish that the meeting including the prosecutor, detectives and others took place. But she added, "Documenting such a meeting through the mouth of the prosecutor is infinitely more powerful.
"We clearly know he has to mount a defense on why it is that so many people, 22 years later, are making allegations against him," she added.
Mr. Merzbacher, 52, was escorted into court yesterday by officials from the state's pretrial release services program.
Ms. Gutierrez said the move was necessary because he had been assaulted in the courthouse on a prior court date.
While awaiting trial, Mr. Merzbacher must remain in his home near Essex except to travel to meet his attorney or to go to court, to work, to a doctor and to church on Sundays.
Ms. Gutierrez confirmed yesterday that Mr. Merzbacher, a former Baltimore County emergency communications employee and union official for white-collar workers in the county, has been working at an automobile repair shop in the county since shortly after his release.