More sex abuse suits filed against ex-teacher

January 08, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Staff Writer Staff writers Eric Siegel, Glenn Small, Gregory P. Kane, Joan Jacobson and Jim Haner contributed to this article.

Allegations of sexual abuse in a Catholic middle school in South Baltimore continued to surface yesterday, as four more lawsuits were filed accusing a former teacher of raping and sodomizing students -- and brandishing guns and knives while threatening to kill them if they reported the acts.

John Joseph Merzbacher, who has worked as a fire dispatcher in Baltimore County since leaving teaching 14 years ago, was being held without bail on charges of sexually abusing six girls and four boys during the 1970s at Catholic Community Middle School.

The 52-year-old Essex man was charged with rape, sodomy, sexual child abuse and other sex crimes in 26 indictments handed down by a Baltimore grand jury, the city state's attorney's office reported yesterday.

Police charging documents and the civil suits describe a sadistic pattern of intimidation and sexual abuse, with the teacher allegedly raping girls and sodomizing boys and forcing the children to have sex with each other. Much of the alleged abuse occurred at the school, where the teacher once fired a gun to back up threats that he would kill the students, according to the civil suits.

Court papers show one victim alleges that the principal of the archdiocesan school entered a locked classroom after school hours while Mr. Merzbacher was engaged in a sexual act with a girl. According to criminal and civil court files, the principal, Sister Eileen Reissman, merely told the teacher not to lock his door and the girl not to stay after school.

Multimillion-dollar civil lawsuits were filed Thursday and yesterday in Baltimore on behalf of four women and one man who claim that they have suffered for years from the lingering effects of abuse by Mr. Merzbacher -- and that the Baltimore Roman Catholic Archdiocese knew or should have known about the abuse. The archdiocese is named as a defendant in the civil actions.

Asked to respond to that allegation, archdiocese spokesman Mark Pacione said, "We're conducting our own investigation, and it's not appropriate at this time to comment on that investigation."

Letters to students

The archdiocese has hired a private security company, Baltimore Security Systems Inc., to send letters to Mr. Merzbacher's former students at the Catholic school, several of the students said.

The archdiocese spokesman said Mr. Merzbacher taught English, reading, mathematics and physical education from 1972 to 1979 at Community Middle and also taught for a few months in the fall of 1979 at another archdiocesan school, Bishop John Neumann School in East Baltimore. Archdiocese records show that the reason he gave for his resignation was "better job opportunity."

Mr. Merzbacher ignored reporters' requests for comment as he was led from a hearing before a District Court commissioner yesterday. He is to appear in court Monday, when a judge will decide whether to set bail on the most serious charge, first-degree rape. A commissioner set bail at $450,000 for Mr. Merzbacher on other charges.

Attorney Joanne L. Suder, who filed the civil lawsuits, said more victims came forward yesterday after news of the allegations spread. She said more suits may be filed in addition to the three filed yesterday. She said as many as 20 children may have been abused at the school.

Sharon A. H. May, head of the sex offense unit of the state's attorney's office, said that a man and a woman called her office yesterday claiming to have been abused by the former teacher.

Ms. Suder said she was first contacted by a woman who said she gained the courage to come forward after seeing how allegations of sexual misconduct against Anne Arundel County high school teacher Ronald Price and prominent physician Neil Solomon came to be accepted as true.

The woman called former classmates and found that they were now willing to come forward with their charges, Ms. Suder said.

Ms. Suder called Ms. May, who said she attended an Oct. 20 meeting at Ms. Suder's home with several of the alleged victims and other students who corroborated their reports. An investigation was immediately launched by detectives in the city Police Department's Youth Section, the prosecutor said.

A grand jury indicted Mr. Merzbacher Thursday, and he was arrested that night at his home in the 700 block of Rockaway Beach Road in eastern Baltimore County, where he has lived for 25 years. He is married and the father of one child.

Mr. Merzbacher taught fifth and sixth grades in three city public schools between 1963 and 1972, when the city education department let him go because he failed to get state certification to teach. He taught at Highlandtown Elementary, John Ruhrah Elementary and Tench Tilghman Elementary, a city schools spokesman said yesterday.

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