Fourteen men and women saw their hopes for a public explanation for sexual abuse at a South Baltimore Catholic school dashed yesterday when a judge dismissed their lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Baltimore for the conduct of former teacher John J. Merzbacher Jr.
In a written opinion, Baltimore Circuit Judge Joseph H. H. Kaplan said the plaintiffs, who alleged that Merzbacher raped and molested them while he was a teacher at Catholic Community Middle School during the 1970s, filed their suits too far beyond the three-year statute of limitations.
The plaintiffs -- who were seeking millions of dollars in damages -- had argued that the former teacher threatened to kill them if they ever told anyone about his alleged abuse, and that their fear prevented them from suing until Merzbacher was indicted on criminal charges in January 1994. They argued that their fear was "reasonable," and therefore created an exception to the statute of limitations.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs said they would consult with their clients before pursuing an appeal, but were leaning toward it.
Quoting from a Maryland Court of Appeals case that said statutes of limitations are based on "expedience, rather than principles," the judge rejected the plaintiffs' argument.
"To hold otherwise would permit a circumvention of the statute of limitations unprecedented in American jurisprudence," Judge Kaplan wrote. "Many litigants must overcome their anxiety and feelings of retaliation before filing suit."
Merzbacher, 53, was sentenced to life in prison July 21 for six counts of rape and sexual abuse of Elizabeth Ann Murphy, now 34, who was Merzbacher's student from 1972 to 1975. Prosecutors filed more than 100 criminal charges against Merzbacher involving 13 other accusers but dropped them after he was sentenced in the Murphy case.
Robert H. Bouse Jr., a lawyer for the archdiocese, said the judge was courageous to throw out the lawsuits. If the litigation had gone forward, he said, the statute of limitations for all types of bTC civil cases would have been thrown into question, because virtually any plaintiff could say he feared threats long after they were made.
"You have to understand, the archdiocese feels terrible about all this," Mr. Bouse said yesterday. "I know people are going to say they're hiding behind a technicality but it's the insurance companies. The carriers say you have to protect your client."
Those comments angered the former students, who said the church has shown no sign of compassion for their suffering.
"I look at every student that had John Merzbacher," said Katherine Micolowski-Stinefelt, one of the plaintiffs and a former student. "They thought their children were getting good educations being taught by reputable teachers. I think they are entitled to their money back at least."
"It sends a clear message to all pedophiles that they should use a gun to make sure they can't be sued," said a 30-year-old man who alleged that Merzbacher abused him. He referred to Merzbacher's reported threats to shoot people dead if they talked of the abuse.
The lawsuits did not charge the archdiocese with directly threatening the students, but they alleged that school and church officials knew Merzbacher was having sex with children and threatening violence. Another teacher, Gary Homberg, wrote a court affidavit that he approached the principal with rumors that Merzbacher was having sex with children in 1974 but was told not to mention the allegations.
Ms. Murphy said she contacted the principal, Sister Eileen Weisman, and other archdiocese officials several times about Merzbacher after leaving Catholic Community in 1975.
Referring to Mr. Homberg's affidavit, Ms. Murphy said, "I think there is evidence we came sooner. No, it wasn't the filing of a lawsuit. But there was 1988, there was 1991, there was 1993."
"Children were brutally raped and molested, terrified, in a Catholic school," Ms. Murphy said. "It doesn't matter if it was 100 years ago. Someone should acknowledge that suffering."
Mr. Bouse, the archdiocese attorney, said it had agreed to pay for counseling for the teacher's alleged victims, but Joanne L. Suder, an attorney who represents 12 of the 14 plaintiffs, said yesterday that no money had changed hands.