The Baltimore Banner [Baltimore MD]
January 7, 2023
By Julie Scharper
Liz and Linda. Linda and Liz.
Liz was from “Up the Hill,” Federal Hill. Confident and sporty, with thick blond hair and ice-blue eyes, she dominated the basketball court. Her father was a police officer; the family sacrificed to send their nine children to Catholic school.
Linda was from “Down the Point,” Locust Point. She inherited her olive skin and dark brown curls from her mother, who left when Linda was 3 months old. Linda’s father, too, was a police officer. He brought baby Linda to his mother to raise. Linda was softer, shy, a rule follower.
The girls met in John Merzbacher’s class at the Catholic Community School of Baltimore in 1972. You can call me “Merz,” he said. Merz was different. He smoked a pipe in the classroom. He said bad words. He had a stoplight, a real stoplight that flashed green and yellow and red during class. He carried a gun. He played records, loudly. He asked these 11- and 12-year-olds to write an essay about who they thought they were.
Who they became was shaped by that classroom. What happened there, what Mr. Merzbacher did to them, has spilled like dark ink into the next half-century of their lives.
It has been almost 30 years since Liz Murphy, Linda Malat Tiburzi and other former students worked to send Merzbacher, one of the state’s most notorious child rapists, to prison, where he is serving four consecutive life sentences.
And still they wait for justice. Liz and Linda want to see Sister Eileen Weisman, the nun who was the principal of the school at the time, who they say witnessed some of the abuse, held accountable. Weisman knew what was happening, the women say, in accounts echoed by sworn depositions from their classmates. She saw Linda lying on the floor, bare-chested, with Merzbacher on top of her. She saw Merzbacher beating a male student. She saw a girl sitting on Merzbacher’s lap with her underwear around her ankles.She even fired another teacher who told her Merzbacher was molesting students. Why didn’t she put a stop to the abuse?
Liz and Linda hope that a 456-page investigation by the Maryland Office of the Attorney General into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore will provide that accountability. In court filings, investigators said the report details the archdiocese’s “deliberate failure to protect the children in its charge,” through the “minimizing of sexual abuse” and “efforts to keep all this information from its parishioners and the public.” The investigation could be the first public accounting of what investigators describe as a culture of “complicit silence” within the archdiocese. Liz and Linda hope that it will expose Weisman’s role in covering up for their abuser.
Weisman, 80, resides at the School Sisters of Notre Dame motherhouse in North Baltimore. She declined through a spokeswoman to speak with a reporter. A spokeswoman for the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the religious order to which she belongs, said the nuns pray daily for the Merzbacher’s survivors. “We’re very sorry for these women and the pain that they’ve gone through,” said spokeswoman Caelie Haines. The order has created policies to prevent future abuse, she said.
The archdiocese has said it does not oppose the release of the full report, which prosecutors say details a “pervasive” culture of sexual abuse in Baltimore’s Catholic churches and schools, involving 158 priests and more than 600 children over 80 years. However, the archdiocese is also paying the legal fees of certain people named in the report but not accused of sexual abuse. The identities of the people have not been revealed, but the archdiocese said it has a responsibility to help them advocate for themselves. Weisman is not represented by the archdiocese’s lawyers, Haines said.
Haines said the School Sisters of Notre Dame do not know what is contained in the report but that they support its full release. “We’re waiting like everyone else to see,” she said.Sign Up for AlertsGet notified of need-to-know
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As Liz and Linda wait for the release of the report, which has been slowed by legal wrangling, they call to check in on each other, just as they did during the trial in 1995, and the time Merzbacher tried to get released on a legal technicality in 2012.
“Liz and I have been to hell and back so many times,” said Linda, 61. “Each time we step back out of the flames, we make sure we have a bucket of water in our hands waiting for each other. I will forever have her back and she will forever have my back.”
When it happened
The first time it happened, the children were having lunch in the park. Sporty Liz was broad jumping, trying to see just how far she could fly through the air. Merzbacher asked her to go back to the school with him.
Elizabeth Ann Murphy — named for Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, who lived for a time in West Baltimore — was very Catholic, very naive and quick to follow orders. She was 11.
Back in the classroom, Merzbacher opened a fake book to reveal a bottle of sherry hidden inside. He handed it to Liz and ordered her to drink. Then he raped her at his desk. After that, for the rest of sixth grade and all of seventh and eighth, the rapes were too numerous to count. (This account, and those that follow, are drawn from interviews and court records.)
In the morning, Merzbacher would say, “Liz, go get my coffee.” She would go to the storeroom next to the classroom. Then she would feel his hands on her. Sometimes he would order one or more boys to rape her too. Liz’s mind would be floating on the storeroom ceiling, staring down at her body.
Sometimes Merzbacher would rape her with his pipe. Back in the classroom, he would puff on the pipe and insinuate to the children what he had done. “I still can’t stand the smell of apple tobacco,” said Liz.
For Linda, it started more slowly. He told her to call him Mr. John. He told her to call him Dad.
He called her at 8 and 9 in the evening. “Who’s that on the phone, Linda?” her grandmother would ask. Linda made up stories. She didn’t want to get in trouble.
After dark, Linda was allowed to sit on the front steps of their house, but go no farther. One evening, when she was 12,Merzbacher drove up in his yellow Volkswagen Beetle with red and black trim. “Get in,” he said.
“I can’t,” she said, walking up to the window. Merzbacher yanked her inside and started to drive. A teenage boy, Brian, who lived with Merzbacher, was sitting in the back and soon they picked up a second boy. Merzbacher sent Linda to the back seat and ordered her to give Brian a blow job.
Brian had to explain what that meant. “I think he was afraid both of us would be hurt very badly if I did not do it,” she said.
Then Merzbacher reached into the glove compartment and took out a gun. He drove to Sherrie’s Show Bar, an East Baltimore strip club owned by his mother and stepfather, shooting at stop signs and traffic lights along the way. At the bar, he hurried inside and came out with a bottle of liquor, which he forced them to drink.
After a while, Merzbacher dropped Linda back off at her house and she tottered inside, drunk and terrified. Her grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair, rosary beads in hand.
That was the start of Linda’s hell. Merzbacher raped her in the storage room and ordered a boy to do it as well. When she screamed, he stabbed a banjo next to her head and said her face would be next.
When it was not happening to them, Liz and Linda would witness the terror of their classmates. Court records preserve the sworn depositions from some of the scores of women and men who accused Merzbacher of raping and physically attacking them as children. Prosecutors who brought charges against Merzbacher in the 1990s said at least 40 former students alleged they had been raped or otherwise abused by him.
Merzbacher allegedly raped both boys and girls, often while holding a gun to their heads, both at the school and at the Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Essex.
Then there was the gun. He fired it across the classroom and held it to students’ heads, according to court records. “If you tell anyone, I’ll kill you, I’ll kill your mother, I’ll kill your father, I’ll kill your whole family,” he would say.
The children never spoke about the dark world they were immersed in, even among themselves.
“None of us knew where to put it. We didn’t have words for it,” recalls Liz, 61. “We never talked about this outside of school except to hide if we saw a yellow Volkswagen in the neighborhood. It’s really strange to experience all this torture every day for three years and not talk about it.”
The adults in their lives, for the most part, either didn’t notice Merzbacher or ignored him. Liz and Linda said that his words and actions around Weisman were often sexually charged. He would grab the principal’s buttocks or breasts and make comments about her breasts, they said, allegations that are echoed in court depositions from their former classmates.
One former student said in his deposition that he once witnessed Merzbacher and Weisman having sex. He also said that Weisman on one occasion walked in on Merzbacher beating him. The teacher punched, kicked and choked the boy while telling the nun, “See, I’m not hurting him”; Weisman responded, “Oh, John, stop it,” according to the deposition.
Another former Catholic Community student testified in a deposition that she used to study in an empty classroom across from Merzbacher’s room and would often see him physically and sexually abusing children. The woman testified that she once saw a girl sitting on Merzbacher’s lap with her underpants around her ankles; when she told Weisman, the principal responded that “the girl was having a problem with the elastic in her underwear,” according to the deposition. After the girl spoke to Weisman, Merzbacher took her aside and threatened to kill her, and students who were close to Merzbacher beat the girl on a stairway, according to the deposition.
Once Linda was in Merzbacher’s classroom after school, according to a sworn deposition. The teacher was lying on top of her, biting her breast and causing her extreme pain. The girl screamed for help. Then she heard a key in the lock of the classroom door; Weisman, the school principal, walked in to see Merzbacher lying on top of the girl, the girl’s breasts exposed.
“John, oh John,” said the nun, as she headed away, Linda recalls. “I told you never to lock the classroom door.”