Principal denies knowing of alleged sexual abuse

January 12, 1994|By Melody Simmons and Gary Gately | Melody Simmons and Gary Gately,Staff Writers

Sister Eileen Weisman denied last night that she knew of former teacher John Joseph Merzbacher Jr.'s alleged sexual abuse of students while the nun was principal of Catholic Community Middle School in Southeast Baltimore in the 1970s.

Speaking to some 200 parents at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen School, where she now serves as principal, Sister Eileen drew a standing ovation after reading a short statement, parents who attended the closed-door meeting said.

The nun's statement marked her first public comments since allegations of Mr. Merzbacher's sexual abuse surfaced last week in news accounts of lawsuits and investigations.

Parents from the Cathedral School on North Charles Street showered the principal with praise and condemned media accounts that they said tainted Sister Eileen's name unjustifiably.

"As a parent, I have complete confidence in her," Ed Goodlander, president of the Cathedral School's Parent Association, said after the meeting.

"I have confidence in the school and in the continued stability of the school and in the safety and security of the children at the school," said Mr. Goodlander, who has known Sister Eileen for seven years.

The school called the meeting in response to news accounts of the charges against Mr. Merzbacher and claims that Sister Eileen failed to respond adequately to stop the alleged abuse.

The police and the Archdiocese of Baltimore are investigating the allegations against Mr. Merzbacher, stemming from his years as a teacher at the middle school.

Mr. Merzbacher and the archdiocese have been named as defendants in five civil lawsuits, seeking a total of $350 million in damages.

In the claims, filed last week in Baltimore Circuit Court, former students contend that Mr. Merzbauger sexually assaulted them and flashed a pistol while threatening to kill anyone who reported him.

A plaintiff alleges in court papers that Sister Eileen entered a locked classroom after school hours while Mr. Merzbacher was engaged in a sexual act with a girl.

The plaintiff alleges that Sister Eileen told the teacher not to lock his door and asked the girl not to stay after school.

Bill Blaul, an archdiocese spokesman, said the archdiocese's investigation centers on the sexual abuse allegations against Mr. Merzbacher.

The allegations surfaced last week in the multiple lawsuits and a Baltimore grand jury indictment in which Mr. Merzbacher is charged with rape, sodomy, child sexual abuse and other sex crimes.

"We are vigorously investigating the case," Mr. Blaul said.

Representatives from Catholic Charities, the archdiocese's social work division, attended last night's meeting to answer questions about how parents could respond when their children ask about the controversy.

After the meeting, many parents refused to comment except to express support for Sister Eileen.

Other parents said they were confident that the archdiocese would investigate the allegations thoroughly and that the evidence would clear the principal.

Lou Mazzuli, parent of a Cathedral School student, said, "I think this'll be handled properly and responsibly. Everyone there is in support of the school and the principal."

Mr. Merzbacher, 52, was expected to be released today after being held without bail since Friday on an 86-count indictment charging him with raping and sodomizing 10 students at Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point, where he taught from 1972 to 1979.

Police and witnesses now say that Mr. Merzbacher may have molested more than 40 students from 1962 to 1979.

Mr. Merzbacher taught at three city public schools before taking the job at Catholic Community Middle School, formerly Our Lady of Good Counsel School.

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