Parishioners shocked, angry at sex abuse allegations

January 10, 1994|By Gary Gately and Jim Haner | Gary Gately and Jim Haner,Staff Writers

Hurt and angry, parishioners streamed out of 11 a.m. Mass at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church yesterday, gazed at the school next door to their century-old sanctuary and pondered the unspeakable: a teacher sexually abusing children of their parish.

Generations of South Baltimore families had sent their children to the Catholic Community Middle School and did so with not a little bit of pride.

As they left church yesterday, they talked of the man who police say betrayed their faith, molested their community's children and left them to wonder what painful revelations could come next.

Last week, former teacher John Merzbacher was indicted on 86 counts of rape, sodomy, sexual molestation and assault after 10 of his students charged that he had routinely attacked them during the 1970s in a storage closet next to their classroom, fondled them in school hallways and threatened their lives if they told.

"They were the kids of blue-collar families who couldn't really afford to send their kids to private school, people who were killing themselves to afford a Catholic education for their kids," said attorney Joanne L. Suder, who represents more than a dozen victims.

"To think that this could have happened here is just unbelievable.

"Unfortunately, I'm afraid there are going to be many more

victims coming forward before this is over."

John Taylor, a 73-year-old parishioner, stood outside the church after Mass, leaning on his cane, shivering in the frigid wind and shaking his head.

"It's hard to explain how it ever happened without anybody finding out or how he got to be a teacher in the first place. There ought to be a way to screen out people like that," Mr. Taylor said.

Such concerns are at the heart of the victims' $350 million claim against the Archdiocese of Baltimore -- which Ms. Suder says knew or should have known about Mr. Merzbacher's alleged reign of terror at the school, intimidating some students so badly that they say they still fear him 20 years later.

Mr. Merzbacher, who has been jailed since Friday when he was denied bail, is scheduled to appear before a judge this morning to ask that he be freed pending trial.

Shirley Doda, owner of the Charles L. Stevens Funeral Home that sits about a block from the church on Fort Avenue, spoke for many parishioners after Mass yesterday who said the charges have cut away at all they hold dear.

Walking the frigid street, the 1946 graduate passed the familiar Formstone rowhouses and family-owned businesses of Locust Point with her eyes downcast.

"I'm sad for the community, the church, for the Catholic school and for the religious leaders -- our teachers, our nuns who taught," Mrs. Doda said.

"In our type of neighborhood, everybody, it seems, hears everything. I don't know how this could go on inside such a small school without anybody's finding out."

But she clung to the belief that the parish and the community would find strength in prayer and that their faith that justice would be served.

"It's just a bad apple in the barrel, but our church is strong," she said.

A half-block away, another longtime parishioner choked on her words when she spoke of the children who have claimed the teacher terrorized and abused them.

"I don't know how a human being could be that cruel to anyone, how anyone could do that to a child," said the woman, whose five children and three grandchildren attended the school

"It just boggles the mind."

After the Mass, the Rev. David G. Smith, church pastor, read parishioners a short prepared statement from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

The statement said church officials had been advised several months ago that city police were looking into the allegations of sexual misconduct by Mr. Merzbacher during his employment at the school, from 1972 to 1979, and that archdiocesan officials are investigating the allegations.

Meanwhile, police continued to deal with a flood of new victims and witnesses -- including at least two former students who say Mr. Merzbacher began molesting children 10 years before he went to work for the archdiocese when he was a public school teacher at Highlandtown Elementary in East Baltimore.

"The phone has barely stopped ringing," said Agent Doug Price, Baltimore police spokesman, said Saturday. "We urge anybody who is a victim or a witness or has any information relevant to this investigation to absolutely call us as soon as possible."

To speak to a detective, call the Baltimore Police Department's Youth Division at 396-2042.

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