2 more lawsuits filed against Merzbacher, ex-teacher accused of sex abuse

September 01, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

In an article in yesterday's editions about new lawsuits filed against former teacher John Joseph Merzbacher, it was incorrectly reported that the plaintiff in an existing Merzbacher suit who died in June committed suicide. In fact, the medical examiner ruled that the manner of death was undetermined, and the dead man's lawyer says that the death was accidental.

The Sun regrets the error.

The 11th and 12th lawsuits accusing former teacher John Joseph Merzbacher of sexually assaulting students during the 1970s at South Baltimore's Catholic Community Middle School were filed yesterday, including a complaint by a man who said he once had a "father-son" relationship with the former teacher.

The filing of the multimillion-dollar suits, which also name the school and the Archdiocese of Baltimore as defendants, came nine days before a key hearing that could determine the course of the civil litigation. In that hearing, scheduled for Sept. 9 before Baltimore Circuit Judge Hilary D. Caplan, lawyers for Mr. Merzbacher, the school and the archdiocese will argue that the suits should be dismissed because the three-year statute of limitations has lapsed.


Raising an issue not addressed in Maryland case law, lawyers for the plaintiffs said they will argue that an exception should be made because Mr. Merzbacher's alleged threats prevented the alleged victims from coming forward sooner.

"When your conduct is the very thing that deters the person from coming forward, you should not benefit from that conduct," said Joanne L. Suder, a lawyer representing 10 of the plaintiffs.

Mr. Merzbacher is scheduled to stand trial on Oct. 4 on criminal charges of abusing 15 teen-agers. M. Cristina Gutierrez, the former teacher's lawyer on many of the criminal charges, said yesterday that she is unsure whether the trial will start then because issues such as whether he will receive separate trials on separate charges have not been settled.

Ms. Gutierrez said Mr. Merzbacher denies all the allegations.

Mr. Merzbacher, 52, of the 700 block of Rockaway Beach Ave. in the Essex area of Baltimore County, is charged with more than 130 crimes, including second-degree rape, sodomy, physical child abuse and sexual child abuse.

All but two of the alleged victims were students at Catholic Community Middle School, formerly Our Lady of Good Counsel School.

The sex acts allegedly took place in several places, including Mr. Merzbacher's classroom, a school supply room and the Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department near his home.

In January, Mr. Merzbacher was released to await trial after his and his daughter's houses were posted for bail. Under the conditions of his release, he must remain in his home except to travel to meet with his attorney or to go to court, to work, to a doctor and to church on Sundays.

In one of the suits filed yesterday, a Lansdowne woman says she saw Mr. Merzbacher fondle and assault other students, and that he also "perpetrated his warped and despicable acts" upon her and threatened to kill her, leading her to drop out of school.

In the other suit filed yesterday, a Rosedale man who says he lived with Mr. Merzbacher for nearly four years claims that the former teacher sexually abused him, his girlfriend and others.

In a previous interview, after he was named as the victim in criminal allegations against Mr. Merzbacher, Bryan House said he came forward because, "I had firsthand knowledge of a lot of this terrorism that was going on. . . . I've got three kids now and I could only think that if someone did this to them how I would feel.

In June, one man who was a plaintiff in a civil suit and an alleged victim in a criminal case died. Ms. Suder said the man committed suicide, apparently in part because of his involvement in the cases. She said his friends reported that he had been having nightmares about testifying in court.

Sharon A. H. May, an assistant state's attorney, has said the charges involving that man will be dismissed because of his death. Ms. Suder said yesterday that the man's estate will pursue the civil claim.

The hearing next week before Judge Caplan will focus on an issue with no precedent in Maryland law, lawyers said.

Lawyers for the archdiocese have argued in written pleadings that only narrow exceptions to the statute of limitations have been granted -- for example, if an "inducement" such as the potential of a settlement caused someone not to file a timely suit. Furthermore, the lawyers for the school and the archdiocese say, the allegations of threatening behavior are not directed at their clients.

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