Woman recalls for jury sexual abuse by teacher

It was, she recalled, her first drink of alcohol. It was in sixth grade and also the first time she had sex. And it was in school with a teacher, whose desktop stack of books was hollowed out to hold a decanter of sherry and shot glasses.

That was the picture painted yesterday by a 34-year-old Cockeysville woman in the sex-abuse trial of former teacher John J. Merzbacher. She said he raped her time and time again during the three years she was a student at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore two decades ago.


"I remember it hurt a great deal," the woman told a Baltimore Circuit Court jury of eight men and four women. "He told me that if I told someone he would . . . kill me, and who would believe me anyway."

When she did summon the courage years later to try to tell officials of the Archdiocese of Baltimore about the abuse, the most they could offer was $1,000 for "some counseling," she testified.


The woman, whose identity is being withheld by The Sun because of the nature of the offense, is the first of more than a dozen people who say Mr. Merzbacher, now 53, molested and abused them as teen-agers during the 1970s. In all, he is charged with more than 120 crimes, most of which will be the subjects of separate trials.

In an opening statement to the jury yesterday, defense attorney M. Cristina Gutierrez characterized the petite, blond woman as a confused abuser of alcohol and drugs with an on-again, off-again interest in joining various religious orders as a nun.

Ms. Gutierrez said middle school records would show that the woman "was very bossy and engendered fear in other students," and that the school principal at the time would testify that "she has a problem with perspective and telling the truth."

Ms. Gutierrez said the woman's story, and those of other students, were prompted by the firing of two other teachers, whom Ms. Gutierrez said were homosexual lovers. The defense attorney said one of those teachers made allegations about Mr. Merzbacher, but that the archdiocese cleared Mr. Merzbacher shortly thereafter, and he continued to teach at Catholic Community for five more years.

"You all will learn, and the evidence will show, that [the students] all talked to each other about rumors -- not truth then, and not truth now," Ms. Gutierrez said.

But Deputy State's Attorney Sharon A. H. May said the accuser had survived years of abuse, and years more when no one would listen.

"He tormented her. He singled her out," Ms. May said.

When the woman tried to tell the principal, Sister Eileen Weisman, about the abuse after graduating from high school in 1979, the principal did nothing, Ms. May said. When the woman complained again in 1988, Sister Eileen told her to "go on with your life."


For several hours yesterday, the woman described Classroom 103, where Mr. Merzbacher held homeroom and taught English. It was, for her, a horrific playground.

"It was one of the few rooms you could go into and not do any schoolwork," she said. "Where else could you get pot and where else would you get alcohol?"

The first time Mr. Merzbacher raped her, she said, occurred while classmates were eating lunch in nearby Latrobe Park. Mr. Merzbacher gave her sherry hidden in the stack of books, which turned out to be wooden and hollow. Then, she said, he lifted her up and raped her in his desk chair.

Many more times were to follow, she said, and sometimes he would invite boys from the class to have sex with her. Almost every day, she said, Mr. Merzbacher would order her to turn on a coffee pot in a nearby storage room during class, then would come in and rape her.

Sometimes he spun the chamber of a revolver he kept at school, pointed it at her head and pulled the trigger in a game of Russian roulette, she testified. One day, she said, Mr. Merzbacher fired the gun over the heads of terrified students.

A priest who had been a classmate of the woman, the Rev. William Mannion, testified that he reported the woman's story to the archdiocese in the fall of 1993, after the woman told him for the first time that she had been abused.