Terrible secrets kept for 20 years

January 08, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Staff Writer Staff writer Melody Simmons contributed to this article.

An article yesterday about allegations of sexual abuse by a former teacher at the Catholic Community Middle School in South Baltimore during the 1970s incorrectly identified one of the 20 known victims as a Roman Catholic priest. The victim was actually a classmate of the priest.

The Sun regrets the error.

John Merzbacher was cool. The pot-bellied English teacher with the mop of curly hair broke all the rules -- smoking and cussing and playing rock 'n' roll records for his eighth-graders at the Catholic Community Middle School. He showed them his gun. He took them joy-riding in his yellow Volkswagen bug.

He made the kids from the hard-scrabble rowhouse neighborhoods of South Baltimore feel special.

"We were learning what it meant to be adults, and he was doing all the things we wanted to do," said John Imbragulio. "He was wide open, buying cases of beer for kids on the weekends, getting people high on pot. We all knew it was kind of strange for a grown man to be acting that way, but we were blinded by growing up."

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

And the kids kept their teacher's secrets for 20 years -- until they learned this week that several of their classmates are now saying that Mr. Merzbacher's affections had a darker design.

On Thursday, the former teacher was indicted on 86 counts of rape, sodomy, sexual molestation and assault after 10 of his students charged that he had isolated them from their classmates and attacked them repeatedly when they were children in the 1970s. They are men and women, sisters, neighbors and friends who say they finally broke their silence when the suffering became too much.

"I will tell you this for certain: They are not lying," said Patti Petroff, a 32-year-old former student of Mr. Merzbacher's who recalls fighting him off when she was 13. "The only thing that stopped him from raping me was that I screamed at the top of my lungs and he backed off long enough for me to get up from the floor and break out through the classroom door."

Echoing interviews with other victims, Ms. Petroff said that Mr. Merzbacher had an accomplice, an older student who held her down as the teacher tried to remove her clothes. "The further you go with this, the more of us you're going to find," she said. "We're going to start coming out of the woodwork."

Joanne L. Suder, an attorney who has already filed lawsuits against Mr. Merzbacher and the Archdiocese of Baltimore on behalf of four former students, said that she expects to file at least eight more claims in coming weeks. Classmates of the students say that Mr. Merzbacher's seven-year tenure at the school brought him into contact with hundreds of other youngsters.

"When we had our first meeting at the state's attorney's office, there were 17 of us," said a 32-year-old college student and painter who has charged that Mr. Merzbacher raped her dozens of times over three years in a storage closet next to his classroom. "And every time I call somebody new, they break down crying and say, 'Me too; he got me, too.' I'm convinced this is just the first wave."

She said the secrecy began to peel away at a funeral for a friend in October, when the priest who presided over the service walked over to her as she stood beside the casket. "You probably don't remember me," she recalled the priest saying. "But we were in the same homeroom class together in the seventh grade. Do you remember John Merzbacher?"

"I hadn't heard his name since 1975 when I transferred to high school," she said. "I felt sick to my stomach. I broke down in tears, just sobbing. All of the sudden, it was a flush of memories."

L "You, too?" the priest said. "He molested me when I was 12."

For the priest and the painter, the secret was broken for the first time. Two kids who had grown up believing they were the only ones, who had harbored their fear and shame alone, suddenly learned that there was at least one other.

At that moment, she said, she looked up at a plaque hanging over the casket of her friend -- an elementary school teacher -- and read the inscription: "I am a teacher. I touch the future."

"All I could think was that John Merzbacher was a teacher and he touched my future, too. He ruined it. He was a big man, a fat man, and he was heavy. It was painful for a little girl to have him lying on top of her. And all through the years, I would have nightmares about it and I would remember what that felt like. I would remember his face, that damn face I could never forget.

"Then, I would remember the gun. And the threats. Practically every day for three years he would threaten to kill me or my family or my friends if I told anyone."

Mr. Merzbacher -- her homeroom teacher from 1972 to 1975 -- first attacked her when she was 11, she said, after ordering her to stay after school to clean his classroom. He lifted her up and raped her as he sat in his desk chair, she said.

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