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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

"I never felt a part of them anymore," she says. "I always felt like I was in a crowded house and a group of people, and I had this great secret that I couldn't tell anyone. I don't know how many times I heard, 'What is wrong with you?' Because I had this chip on my shoulder, and I was always being belligerent. I was surrounded by people, but very much alone."

All the while Merzbacher was ordering young Elizabeth into a storage room to make his coffee, then coming in afterward to rape her, she says. He called her names and threatened her with the gun.

She got away after eighth-grade graduation, but the pain persisted. She used drugs through much of high school. She left home at 16 and lived with a sister, but sometimes she slept at Federal Hill Park. A nun at what was then Seton High School started a romantic relationship with her that lasted about a year and a half.

Even though that relationship was consensual, Ms. Murphy says, "That person has apologized to me. She said, 'You were young. It wasn't fair to you and I am sorry.' "

After graduating from high school, Ms. Murphy approached Sister Eileen Weisman, who had been principal of Catholic Community School, to tell her of Merzbacher's abuse. But Sister Eileen had no response and became "cold and aloof," Ms. Murphy says.

In notes the archdiocese later supplied under subpoena, Sister Eileen is quoted as saying Ms. Murphy "propositioned" her around the same time, and that's why she became cold and aloof. Ms. Murphy says that didn't happen: "That's inconceivable to me."

Ms. Murphy had a four-year relationship with another woman that became violent at times. She moved to Texas, California and Washington, where she was a food-service manager at several colleges. She started the application process to join the Benedictine sisters, but withdrew because the sisters lived too isolated a life.

Later she lived in the St. Brigid's community of the School Sisters of Notre Dame in East Baltimore for a year, but ultimately left, she says, because she did not "share a common spirituality" with the other women there.

The one on trial

She went back to Sister Eileen in 1988 to tell her more about Merzbacher's abuse and to ask if he was still teaching. She says the principal told her to go on with her life. Then she went to the archdiocese. She met with Suzanne Sullivan, a layperson who worked in the human resources division, and the Rev. George Moeller. She laid out her life.

"She said Father (George) Moeller and I treated her as a victim for the first time -- she was grateful -- no one else has done this," Ms. Sullivan wrote in notes about the meeting.

They offered counseling and told Ms. Murphy to call the Department of Social Services. When DSS said they could not help because Ms. Murphy was an adult, they urged her to report Merzbacher's abuse to police.

Instead Ms. Murphy consulted a former colleague of her father's, who told her she would be the one on trial.

She didn't go to the police until 1993, when a former classmate who had become a priest coaxed the story out of her. She helped investigators and a civil lawyer assemble the group of more than a dozen grown men and women who sobbed as they traded stories of horror at the teacher's hands.

She says the church should have helped her go to police earlier. "I was a destroyed human being, and I was expected to do all these rational, reasonable things."

Her mother Mary, a 73-year-old woman who still watches Mass on television each day, learned only last year what was behind her daughter's anger. She was stunned at what her daughter had been through.

"We're a very close-knit family, and it hurt to know that she hurts," Mary Murphy says now. "We care deeply."

Her family rallied around her during the investigation and trial. Sobbing herself the day Merzbacher was convicted, sister Trish Cysyk said: "We are stronger because of this."

Going on

Today, Liz Murphy paints the interiors of houses, cleans offices, goes to college off and on, and tries to find some peace.

Her surroundings are spartan, her possessions few. She lives in a studio apartment in Cockeysville, her living-room futon doubling as a bed.

During the day, a teddy bear with a sullen look sits there; it is the first thing she sees when she walks through the door. He is a symbol of the child that was, the one she is trying to remember.

The $140 million civil suit she filed against Merzbacher and the Baltimore archdiocese in January 1994 -- the same day as Merzbacher's arrest -- is on hold pending a judge's ruling on whether the statute of limitations bars it.

Defense attorneys used it during the trial to say her motivation in participating with the criminal prosecution was the lawsuit's potential big payoff.

She says the lawsuit continues to be the only way to get the church's attention, the only way to exact the apology she and other students who say they were abused have waited for.

But her mother has had a difficult time coming to grips with the decision to sue.

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