Merzbacher proclaims he is innocent of abuse

January 19, 1994|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,Staff Writer

In his first public statement since his Jan. 6 arrest on charges that he molested 10 children in a Catholic middle school during the 1970s, John Joseph Merzbacher Jr. proclaimed his innocence in 19 words at his attorney's office yesterday -- then refused to answer any questions about his case.

"I didn't do any of these things," Mr. Merzbacher said. "And alls I want is a fair trial to clear my name."

His lawyers, William H. Murphy Jr. and M. Cristina Gutierrez, then attacked reporters for their coverage of Mr. Merzbacher's case -- decrying what they called "sensational, tabloid-style journalism," "irresponsible reporting" and "one-sided stories" that have come out since a grand jury handed up an 86-count indictment against their client two weeks ago.

Never mentioning her by name, Mr. Murphy suggested that Joanne L. Suder, an attorney representing some 20 plaintiffs in a multimillion dollar lawsuit against Mr. Merzbacher and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, orchestrated negative coverage of his client's case by leaking information to the media.

He then blasted prosecutors for allowing the alleged victims' lawyer to "hand them" their case against Mr. Merzbacher in ``TC "package" so the lawyer could bring pressure on the church to pay off her clients.

He accused the alleged victims of having a "money motive" for coming forward to "sign on" as plaintiffs and witnesses against the 52-year-old former teacher, who has been a 911 emergency dispatcher in Baltimore County since leaving his job at the Catholic Community Middle School in 1979.

"There are a large number of people in this case who, for reasons known only to themselves, have not reported these allegations for between 15 to 22 years," Mr. Murphy said. "There is a money motive in this case from the beginning, and a well-respected lawyer is orchestrating all of the people involved for the obvious purpose of increasing the size of whatever award that attorney thinks these people ought to get."

Said Mrs. Gutierrez: "We're appalled in that the entire press focus of this case has been orchestrated from the beginning by those who have a great financial interest in this case."

Dressed in a brown tie and sweater, Mr. Merzbacher sat quietly through the half-hour news conference between his two lawyers -- who threatened to eject any reporter who directed questions at their client.

Mr. Merzbacher is free on bail pending a trial on charges that he raped or molested at least 10 students from 1972 to 1979 at the school, formerly known as Our Lady of Good Counsel, on Fort Avenue in South Baltimore's Locust Point neighborhood.

At least four other students from Highlandtown Elementary School have made similar allegations to police dating to the beginning of Mr. Merzbacher's teaching career in 1962. He also taught at two other public elementary schools in the 1960s -- John Rurah and Tench Tilghman.

And Mrs. Suder said last week that she has been contacted by at least another 30 former students who claim that they had been molested by Mr. Merzbacher.

"There has been no investigation of their backgrounds or the psychological problems of the alleged victims in these crimes," Mr. Murphy said. "That put Mr. Merzbacher in the position no American should be placed in . . . he is fighting uphill against public opinion before trial."

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