A reprint of the famous Sistine Chapel scene between God and Adam is framed on a wall of Elizabeth Ann Murphy's small Cockeysville apartment. Nothing stands between the two of them: no priests or nuns, no bishop, and most of all, no lawyers. Just the supreme hand of the Creator and that of Man, trying so hard to touch.
The picture, one of her favorite images, symbolizes the importance of religion in her life. And it expresses all the trauma and futility the earthly world has placed between Ms. Murphy and the Catholic church since middle-school teacher John Joseph Merzbacher raped and abused her 20 years ago.
No matter that Merzbacher was sentenced to life in prison yesterday, by a judge who said he deserved "as much punishment as he could get" for his crimes.
As the criminal justice process lurches forward into an appeal of Merzbacher's conviction, the messy details of Elizabeth Murphy's life become the focus. And a civil lawsuit that she filed against the Archdiocese of Baltimore, alleging that church officials should have prevented Merzbacher's abuse, continues to estrange a once-aspiring nun from what she still calls "my church." "You can look at my life, and you can have compassion," says Ms. Murphy, who last month willingly gave up the rape victim's usual cloak of anonymity in the media. "Or you can take it and twist it, and make it anything you want to make it."
It is not an easy life to look at.
Ms. Murphy, now 34, is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. She'd show up stoned in the back of the chapel to pray in her teens. She had an affair with a nun during high school -- one she says she did not initiate but consented to. Another nun she went to for help accuses Ms. Murphy of propositioning her, something she vehemently denies. She has struggled with her dream to enter religious life herself, trying twice to enter different orders and ultimately leaving.
She now finds her private history under a very public microscope. In fact, Merzbacher's attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, plans to appeal his conviction because she wasn't allowed to explore Ms. Murphy's romantic liaisons and turbulent relationship with the church during the teacher's trial, according to court papers.
But even if she comes under attack, Ms. Murphy doesn't want to cower in the shadows anymore. She doesn't want to behave like she's the one who did something wrong.
The guilty one
The day Merzbacher was convicted, she stood on the courthouse steps, surrounded by some of her eight sisters and brothers, and told a small army of TV and newspaper cameras that it was OK to aim at her face and use her name.
"It has taken me 20 years to say I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed," she said that day.
There are times she may regret that decision. Thirteen other men and women, most of them former Catholic Community Middle School students, were identified in criminal indictments as victims of Merzbacher. But now that prosecutors have dropped those charges, she is the only criminal victim of record.
Who she is should not be relevant, she says.
"He is guilty," she says over and over, as if reminding herself. "He is the one who has to be judged for this crime, not me. I had no history when I was 11 years old."
Back then, her school picture showed an awkward smile and a slightly wild head of strawberry-blonde hair curling in layers to her Peter Pan collar. Her parents, Mary and Joseph, named their eighth child for Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. From the age of 8, when she took her first Communion, she felt God calling her to be a nun. That became her dream.
She grew up in the closest of quarters in a three-bedroom rowhouse on Battery Avenue in South Baltimore, so crowded with four brothers and four sisters, parents and an uncle that there were beds in practically every room.
Still, she couldn't bear being separated from her family when she left home for the first time to attend a summer camp in Annapolis. She was there about a week when she wrote her parents a note in July 1972, two months before she met John Merzbacher. Words sprawled down the page in a child's unruly hand. "Please if you get this letter today come and get me," she pleaded, homesick. "I'll explain why when you come."
After the sex in school began, she began to hate living in that rowhouse full of people.
She says she never told her family she was being raped out of fear that Merzbacher would kill her with the gun he kept in his desk drawer.
Her father, Joseph, a beat cop in Southwest Baltimore who died in 1985, used to keep the note she wrote from camp close at hand. He'd pull it out later, all those times when his daughter -- an angry teen-ager, a drinker and a pot smoker, and a troublemaker no one could reach -- renounced their family and tried to get away.
"I never felt a part of them anymore," she says. "I always felt like I was in a crowded house and a group of people, and I had this great secret that I couldn't tell anyone. I don't know how many times I heard, 'What is wrong with you?' Because I had this chip on my shoulder, and I was always being belligerent. I was surrounded by people, but very much alone."
All the while Merzbacher was ordering young Elizabeth into a storage room to make his coffee, then coming in afterward to rape her, she says. He called her names and threatened her with the gun.
She got away after eighth-grade graduation, but the pain persisted. She used drugs through much of high school. She left home at 16 and lived with a sister, but sometimes she slept at Federal Hill Park. A nun at what was then Seton High School started a romantic relationship with her that lasted about a year and a half.
Even though that relationship was consensual, Ms. Murphy says, "That person has apologized to me. She said, 'You were young. It wasn't fair to you and I am sorry.' "
After graduating from high school, Ms. Murphy approached Sister Eileen Weisman, who had been principal of Catholic Community School, to tell her of Merzbacher's abuse. But Sister Eileen had no response and became "cold and aloof," Ms. Murphy says.
In notes the archdiocese later supplied under subpoena, Sister Eileen is quoted as saying Ms. Murphy "propositioned" her around the same time, and that's why she became cold and aloof. Ms. Murphy says that didn't happen: "That's inconceivable to me."
Ms. Murphy had a four-year relationship with another woman that became violent at times. She moved to Texas, California and Washington, where she was a food-service manager at several colleges. She started the application process to join the Benedictine sisters, but withdrew because the sisters lived too isolated a life.
Later she lived in the St. Brigid's community of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in East Baltimore for a year, but ultimately left, she says, because she did not "share a common spirituality" with the other women there.
The one on trial
She went back to Sister Eileen in 1988 to tell her more about Merzbacher's abuse and to ask if he was still teaching. She says the principal told her to go on with her life. Then she went to the archdiocese. She met with Suzanne Sullivan, a layperson who worked in the human resources division, and the Rev. George Moeller. She laid out her life.
"She said Father (George) Moeller and I treated her as a victim for the first time -- she was grateful -- no one else has done this," Ms. Sullivan wrote in notes about the meeting.
They offered counseling and told Ms. Murphy to call the Department of Social Services. When DSS said they could not help because Ms. Murphy was an adult, they urged her to report Merzbacher's abuse to police.
Instead Ms. Murphy consulted a former colleague of her father's, who told her she would be the one on trial.
She didn't go to the police until 1993, when a former classmate who had become a priest coaxed the story out of her. She helped investigators and a civil lawyer assemble the group of more than a dozen grown men and women who sobbed as they traded stories of horror at the teacher's hands.
She says the church should have helped her go to police earlier. "I was a destroyed human being, and I was expected to do all these rational, reasonable things."
Her mother Mary, a 73-year-old woman who still watches Mass on television each day, learned only last year what was behind her daughter's anger. She was stunned at what her daughter had been through.
"We're a very close-knit family, and it hurt to know that she hurts," Mary Murphy says now. "We care deeply."
Her family rallied around her during the investigation and trial. Sobbing herself the day Merzbacher was convicted, sister Trish Cysyk said: "We are stronger because of this."
Today, Liz Murphy paints the interiors of houses, cleans offices, goes to college off and on, and tries to find some peace.
Her surroundings are spartan, her possessions few. She lives in a studio apartment in Cockeysville, her living-room futon doubling as a bed.
During the day, a teddy bear with a sullen look sits there; it is the first thing she sees when she walks through the door. He is a symbol of the child that was, the one she is trying to remember.
The $140 million civil suit she filed against Merzbacher and the Baltimore archdiocese in January 1994 -- the same day as Merzbacher's arrest -- is on hold pending a judge's ruling on whether the statute of limitations bars it.
Defense attorneys used it during the trial to say her motivation in participating with the criminal prosecution was the lawsuit's potential big payoff.
She says the lawsuit continues to be the only way to get the church's attention, the only way to exact the apology she and other students who say they were abused have waited for.
But her mother has had a difficult time coming to grips with the decision to sue.
"Her simple solution, and it's always been mine, is 'Why doesn't the cardinal just get all you kids together . . . and talk to you?' " Ms. Murphy says. "That's a very innocent way of looking at it. And that's the way Jesus would do it. But oh, no, we've got to send out our fleet of attorneys."
But the suit is precisely what has prevented her from getting the formal apology she seeks, says archdiocese spokesman William Blaul.
"The Merzbacher case is very difficult, it's very tragic, and having said those things, we're being sued for millions of dollars," he said. "When there is a big legal framework, you've got to watch things you say and things you do."
So Elizabeth Murphy's civil suit, and those of other alleged victims, remain open. She says she does not expect to see a cent and did not come up with the $140 million figure.
She thought about tearing up the civil complaint on the witness stand in the criminal trial, in a dramatic gesture to assure the jury she was testifying for justice, not money. But prosecutors told her that would look like game-playing, too.
Asked what would be just compensation from the church, she answered: "I'm not sure."
Would a real apology be enough?
"I think it would have been for me."