A Baltimore Circuit judge yesterday put off deciding whether a series of lawsuits against former Catholic schoolteacher John J. Merzbacher and the Archdiocese of Baltimore are barred because they were filed more than a decade after the teacher is alleged to have sexually abused a number of his students.
Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan said he needed more time to review case law cited by lawyers for both sides. Attorneys for the former students said that the delay in filing the suits was caused by Merzbacher's threats to kill any victim who spoke of abuse. Archdiocese attorneys argued that nowhere in the country had a court permitted a delay of such length based on threats.
Merzbacher, 53, was sentenced to life in prison July 21 for six counts of rape and sexual abuse of Elizabeth Ann Murphy, a now 34-year-old woman who was Merzbacher's student from 1972 to 1975 at Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore.
At trial, Ms. Murphy said she did not come forward for many years because Merzbacher held a gun to her head and told her he would kill her and her family if she told anyone about his conduct.
Prosecutors filed more than 100 similar criminal charges against Merzbacher involving 13 other accusers, but dropped those charges after he was sentenced in the Murphy case.
A number of former students still are pressing civil suits against Merzbacher, the school and the archdiocese, alleging officials knew or should have known of Merzbacher's abuse.
Merzbacher, who is appealing his convictions, was not in court yesterday.
Lawyers for the archdiocese and the school argued that if the suits went forward, the judge would essentially nullify Maryland's three-year statute of limitations in civil cases. Virtually any plaintiff could argue that he took threats to heart long after they were made, said attorney Robert H. Bouse Jr., even if the person who made the threats was in no position to act on them.
"Once the threat has ceased, then the limitation period begins to run," Mr. Bouse said. "There was no threat after 1979."
In any event, he said, Merzbacher was not acting at the behest of school and church officials when he threatened the students.
Attorney Joanne L. Suder, who represents 12 of the 14 plaintiffs, said the proper test was simply whether it was reasonable for the children to continue to fear Merzbacher as they reached adulthood, and to delay filing lawsuits. Once Merzbacher was indicted formally, she said, the former students had no more reason to fear bringing suit.
Ms. Suder said archdiocese officials demonstrated their indifference to the students' plight in February 1974, when another teacher approached the school principal with rumors that Merzbacher was having sex with children.
The teacher, Gary Homberg, was fired after the meeting, which he outlined in an affidavit to the court in May. In that meeting, principal Sister Eileen Weisman, the Rev. Herbert Derwart and another priest asked him not to mention the allegations, according to the affidavit.
"They're in bed with that defendant John Merzbacher and tied to him whether they like it or not," Ms. Suder said.
Ms. Murphy, one of the plaintiffs, said she is hoping the case will go forward and that it is the only way to get an accounting from the church.
"The criminal trial established this happened," she said. "The civil question is, how could this happen? I would really like some answers."