Revelations in abuse case spark calls for reform

Catholic officials knew of teacher's abuse, court documents indicate

  • About 200 people, some former students of the Catholic Community School, attended a candlelight vigil to remember the victims of teacher John Merzbacher, who was convicted of sexual and mental abuse of one of his students and accused of harming dozens more children.
About 200 people, some former students of the Catholic Community… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
November 26, 2012|By Justin George, The Baltimore Sun

State legislators and sexual-abuse victim advocates called Monday for reforms in the way such cases are handled in Maryland, including stricter reporting requirements when incidents are discovered.

State Sen. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore Democrat, said she would continue to push to strengthen Maryland's reporting requirements. She also said victims of sexual abuse should have more time to file civil suits — "so people can get out of college, get their lives together, have some kind of economy and have the understanding of the crime."

Anyone who doesn't report a child-abuse allegation needs "to be held accountable because if child predators know they're in a secret system and they are safe there, nothing changes," said Judy Jones, an associate director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

The proposed reforms come in wake of a Baltimore Sun investigation related to John Merzbacher, a one-time teacher at Catholic Community Middle School in Locust Point. Court documents analyzed in The Sun investigation indicate that the school's principal and other Catholic officials were aware of the lay teacher's sexual abuse of students in the 1970s but did not report it until Merzbacher was criminally investigated in the 1990s.

Court documents and recent interviews with former students describe several situations in which critics claim the church had opportunities to protect schoolchildren from Merzbacher but did not notify police of the allegations against the teacher.

Merzbacher is serving four life terms for rape and other crimes committed while teaching at the school, but is seeking his release in a federal appeal.

The Archdiocese of Baltimore said its officials were not aware of the abuse until 1988, and its spokesman, Sean Caine, said the church didn't realize it was obligated to report the allegations when it first learned of them. But he said church officials cooperated with law enforcement in a 1993 investigation into Merzbacher's behavior, and informed the Department of Social Services of allegations against the teacher that year.

More than a dozen students were named in criminal complaints against Merzbacher, and he was convicted in 1995 of raping a student, Elizabeth Ann Murphy, in the 1970s. After he received his life sentences, prosecutors dropped the other cases. Two years ago, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that Merzbacher's criminal defense attorneys failed to tell him about a 10-year plea deal and that he should be given the chance to accept it now — which would lead to his release. The Maryland attorney general's office is appealing the ruling.

Kelley, who has tried for years to strengthen the state's mandatory reporting requirements, said revelations about the Merzbacher case may finally help the measure pass.

Current requirements compel police officers, health practitioners, social service workers and educators to report suspected child abuse to local authorities and their bosses. But the state has no power to prosecute when they don't follow the law. Educators can face the loss or suspension of their teaching certificates, but the law's critics say that happens infrequently.

In the last General Assembly session, Kelley and several co-sponsors passed a bill in the Senate that would have made it a misdemeanor for workers required to report child abuse to knowingly and willfully fail to do so. The bill died in the House of Delegates.

Kelley said she will reintroduce the measure next year, along with stipulations that would require state medical examiners to report suspected child abuse in cases they investigate. She also wants to force employees or contractors of colleges or universities to report abuse claims to chancellors — a clause prompted by the recent Penn State University scandal.

A number of civil suits related to Merzbacher were also filed, but they were never litigated. They were dismissed by a state appeals court, which ruled the statute of limitations for such claims had passed.

In 2003, after several cases of alleged abuse by Catholic priests surfaced, Kelley tried to extend the state statute of limitations for such lawsuits. Victims abused while young have until age 25 to bring a lawsuit; she tried to raise the age limit to 33.

The bill failed, but Kelley said the issue should be revisited. She'd like to raise the limit to age 35.

Del. Brian McHale, a Baltimore Democrat, sponsored a similar bill at the time. He said Monday that he would have to study the issue again, but believes that it often does take years for victims of sexual abuse to be brave enough to come forward and that age is an arbitrary limitation.

McHale said he attended church in the area where Merzbacher taught, "and because of that it was one of the reasons I introduced that bill, and to this day I'm still convinced the archdiocese knew and shoved it under the rug and only perpetuated the problem that existed at the time."

But not everyone feels the need to lengthen the statute of limitations.

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