The criminal prosecution of former Catholic schoolteacher John J. Merzbacher Jr. is to begin today, pitting more than a dozen men and women who accuse him of molesting and raping them two decades ago against a defendant who says their motive is money.
But the opening of the first of what could be a series of trials involving different alleged victims won't provide quick answers to the questions that have swirled around the 53-year-old Essex resident since he was charged nearly a year and a half ago.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Robert I. H. Hammerman, who is hearing the cases, said he believes the first trial could take about a month. It may take several days to find 12 jurors and four alternates who are able to serve that long and say they can judge the case fairly despite heavy publicity.
Mr. Merzbacher is charged with more than 120 crimes involving sexual abuse of students at Catholic Community Middle School, formerly Our Lady of Good Counsel School, in South Baltimore. Prosecutors allege that while he taught there from 1972 to 1979, he regularly had sex with students in classrooms, a school supply room and the Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department near his home.
To keep them quiet, the now-grown students have alleged, Mr. Merzbacher often waved a gun -- and even fired it in class one day -- to underscore his threats to kill anyone who told of the abuse. His accusers say those threats kept them silent for many years.
Defense attorneys will attempt to show that Mr. Merzbacher's accusers are motivated by money they hope to be awarded in civil suits against him.
The first trial will focus on a woman, now 34, who says her anger at what Mr. Merzbacher did overcame her fear of him in fall 1993, causing her to contact fellow students, who ultimately spoke with police, prosecutors and a private attorney.
The woman accuses Mr. Merzbacher of repeatedly raping and otherwise abusing her while he was her homeroom teacher between 1972 and 1975.
At a hearing Thursday, prosecutors and defense attorneys disagreed over how to speed the criminal proceedings while ensuring an impartial jury.
M. Cristina Gutierrez, an attorney for Mr. Merzbacher, asked the judge to allow potential jurors to fill out questionnaires about publicity, child sexual abuse and religion.
All are emotional issues that "run very deep for most people, regardless of their cultural or class experiences," said Ms. Gutierrez, who said she had employed questionnaires in other sex-abuse cases.
Assistant State's Attorney Roberta G. Siskind objected to the use of a background survey, saying the state would prefer to focus more generally on whether jurors feel they can be fair, despite what they may have seen or read in news accounts.
Judge Hammerman was expected to resolve how the jury will be chosen today.
Opening statements are expected late this week.