Judge refuses to dismiss archdiocese from sexual assault suits

September 10, 1994|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,Sun Staff Writer

A judge yesterday refused to dismiss the Archdiocese of Baltimore from 14 civil suits alleging that former teacher John J. Merzbacher sexually assaulted students during the 1970s at a Catholic middle school in South Baltimore.

But Baltimore Circuit Judge Hilary D. Caplan said he may revisit the issue after hearing from plaintiffs who say they did not file complaints until this year because they were threatened by the former teacher.

The delay of more than a decade between the alleged abuse at Catholic Community Middle School and the filing of the suits was the focus of a 90-minute hearing in Baltimore Circuit Court.

The school and the archdiocese, accused of knowing of the alleged abuse, argued through lawyers that the suits against them should be dismissed because the three-year statute of limitations lapsed before the complaints were filed.

The plaintiffs' lawyers countered that an exception should be made because the alleged threats caused the delay.

Joanne L. Suder, a lawyer representing 12 of the plaintiffs, said Mr. Merzbacher displayed a handgun and boasted of "Mafia" connections in issuing the alleged threats. She said he told many of them: "No matter where you are, what year it is, no matter how many years pass, no matter where you are, I will find you and I will use this gun and blow your . . . head off.

"The question is: Was it reasonable for these plaintiffs to still be in fear?" she asked the court.

Lawyers for the archdiocese and the school said Maryland law allows only narrow exceptions to the statute of limitations -- for example, if an inducement such as the potential of a settlement caused someone not to file a timely suit.

Lawyer Kevin Michael Murphy, representing both the school and archdiocese, said, "There are no exceptions that fit this case."

The lawyers for the school and the archdiocese further argued that none of the alleged threats was issued by their clients.

But the plaintiffs' lawyers said the "institutional defendants" should be accountable for the alleged threats because a young teacher had told the school principal and a priest of the abuse.

Judge Caplan said he would reconsider the motion to dismiss after the two sides exchange information on the effect of the alleged threats.

"It seems to me I need to have more information about what each plaintiff was feeling, was doing, why they did what they did," the judge said.

He gave the lawyers 120 days to gather the information, a process likely to involve taking depositions from the alleged victims and school and archdiocese officials.

Mr. Merzbacher, who through his lawyers has said he would assert his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination if questioned, will not have to be deposed, the judge said. He was not in court yesterday but was represented by lawyer John H. Morris Jr.

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. He has denied the allegations.

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.

The 13th and 14th civil suits alleging he sexually assaulted former students were filed Wednesday.

The civil cases are scheduled to go to trial in February, but lawyers said yesterday's events may delay its start.

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