Raped as a child at school, criticized for adult lifestyle, victim finds the faith to go on Ashamed No More

July 22, 1995|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,Sun Staff Writer

A reprint of the famous Sistine Chapel scene between God and Adam is framed on a wall of Elizabeth Ann Murphy's small Cockeysville apartment. Nothing stands between the two of them: no priests or nuns, no bishop, and most of all, no lawyers. Just the supreme hand of the Creator and that of Man, trying so hard to touch.

The picture, one of her favorite images, symbolizes the importance of religion in her life. And it expresses all the trauma and futility the earthly world has placed between Ms. Murphy and the Catholic church since middle-school teacher John Joseph Merzbacher raped and abused her 20 years ago.

No matter that Merzbacher was sentenced to life in prison yesterday, by a judge who said he deserved "as much punishment as he could get" for his crimes.

As the criminal justice process lurches forward into an appeal of Merzbacher's conviction, the messy details of Elizabeth Murphy's life become the focus. And a civil lawsuit that she filed against the Archdiocese of Baltimore, alleging that church officials should have prevented Merzbacher's abuse, continues to estrange a once-aspiring nun from what she still calls "my church." "You can look at my life, and you can have compassion," says Ms. Murphy, who last month willingly gave up the rape victim's usual cloak of anonymity in the media. "Or you can take it and twist it, and make it anything you want to make it."

It is not an easy life to look at.

Ms. Murphy, now 34, is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict. She'd show up stoned in the back of the chapel to pray in her teens. She had an affair with a nun during high school -- one she says she did not initiate but consented to. Another nun she went to for help accuses Ms. Murphy of propositioning her, something she vehemently denies. She has struggled with her dream to enter religious life herself, trying twice to enter different orders and ultimately leaving.

She now finds her private history under a very public microscope. In fact, Merzbacher's attorney, M. Cristina Gutierrez, plans to appeal his conviction because she wasn't allowed to explore Ms. Murphy's romantic liaisons and turbulent relationship with the church during the teacher's trial, according to court papers.

But even if she comes under attack, Ms. Murphy doesn't want to cower in the shadows anymore. She doesn't want to behave like she's the one who did something wrong.

The guilty one

The day Merzbacher was convicted, she stood on the courthouse steps, surrounded by some of her eight sisters and brothers, and told a small army of TV and newspaper cameras that it was OK to aim at her face and use her name.

"It has taken me 20 years to say I am not ashamed. I am not ashamed," she said that day.

There are times she may regret that decision. Thirteen other men and women, most of them former Catholic Community Middle School students, were identified in criminal indictments as victims of Merzbacher. But now that prosecutors have dropped those charges, she is the only criminal victim of record.

Who she is should not be relevant, she says.

"He is guilty," she says over and over, as if reminding herself. "He is the one who has to be judged for this crime, not me. I had no history when I was 11 years old."

Back then, her school picture showed an awkward smile and a slightly wild head of strawberry-blonde hair curling in layers to her Peter Pan collar. Her parents, Mary and Joseph, named their eighth child for Mother Elizabeth Ann Seton. From the age of 8, when she took her first Communion, she felt God calling her to be a nun. That became her dream.

She grew up in the closest of quarters in a three-bedroom rowhouse on Battery Avenue in South Baltimore, so crowded with four brothers and four sisters, parents and an uncle that there were beds in practically every room.

Still, she couldn't bear being separated from her family when she left home for the first time to attend a summer camp in Annapolis. She was there about a week when she wrote her parents a note in July 1972, two months before she met John Merzbacher. Words sprawled down the page in a child's unruly hand. "Please if you get this letter today come and get me," she pleaded, homesick. "I'll explain why when you come."

After the sex in school began, she began to hate living in that rowhouse full of people.

She says she never told her family she was being raped out of fear that Merzbacher would kill her with the gun he kept in his desk drawer.

Her father, Joseph, a beat cop in Southwest Baltimore who died in 1985, used to keep the note she wrote from camp close at hand. He'd pull it out later, all those times when his daughter -- an angry teen-ager, a drinker and a pot smoker, and a troublemaker no one could reach -- renounced their family and tried to get away.

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