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Sex talk called part of classes


Prosecutors rested their first case against former Catholic school teacher John J. Merzbacher yesterday, presenting as their final witness a Baltimore police sergeant who said Mr. Merzbacher joked in class about having sex with a female student two decades ago.

Sgt. Michael Snow echoed details of the testimony of that student, now 34, who says Mr. Merzbacher repeatedly raped and molested her during three years in the 1970s, while he was her teacher at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore.

The 34-year-old woman is the first of 14 men and women named in criminal indictments as having been sexually abused by Mr. Merzbacher, now 53.

Her case is the first to go to trial.

Sergeant Snow described conflicting feelings about Mr. Merzbacher -- wanting to be part of a "cool" teacher's "inner circle" even as that teacher humiliated him and called him names.

He said Mr. Merzbacher ridiculed his reading mistakes and teased that he was "afraid of girls." Still, the sergeant said, "I loved being around him. He made you feel important . . . like you could do adult things when you were a kid."

Sergeant Snow did not testify that Mr. Merzbacher had molested him, or that he had witnessed Mr. Merzbacher sexually abusing anyone else. But he recalled a near-daily ritual that the alleged victim described on the stand last week: Mr. Merzbacher ordering her to make coffee, then following her out to the storage room and leaving the class alone.

When the two returned, sometimes Mr. Merzbacher would gesture suggestively and make jokes about having sex with the student, Sergeant Snow said.

"He would tell her 'Thanks a lot, that was good,' " the sergeant said. "Sometimes she would slap him on the arm and he would laugh."

On other occasions, Mr. Merzbacher would boast about other sexual acts he claimed to have done with girls, including the now-34-year-old student, Sergeant Snow said.

Sometimes the female student and Mr. Merzbacher got into angry shouting matches that included cursing in front of the class, Sergeant Snow said.

"At one point she said something that really upset him, and he pulled out the gun," the sergeant said. "He said something to the effect that he could kill her, or he could blow her head off."

One of the first defense witnesses yesterday called into question how Mr. Merzbacher could have raped the student so often in the storage room -- when it was an office for the school's business manager during one of the student's three years at the school.

Sister Theresa Kessler testified that as business manager, she had an office in what was apparently the same room described by the former students as the storage room Mr. Merzbacher used. She said she recalled working out of that office daily -- greeting visitors to the school, collecting tuition and keeping books -- during the 1972-73 school year, after which she moved to larger quarters on the second floor.

However, under cross-examination by Deputy State's Attorney Sharon A. H. May, Sister Theresa said it was "possible" she had moved her office before the end of that school year. The alleged victim testified that she recalled Mr. Merzbacher first raping her in his classroom in spring 1973, near the end of the school term.

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