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.
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.”
‘You need to forget it’
After three years of hell, Liz and Linda graduated from middle school. They never had to see Merzbacher again. But he haunted them.
The girls enrolled in Archbishop Keough High School, a new all-girls Catholic school in Southwest Baltimore. It is also allegedly the scene of brutal rapes perpetrated by an authority figure. Former students said the Rev. Joseph Maskell, the chaplain and school counselor, raped, physically and psychologically tortured, and sexually trafficked students to police officers and others, allegations that were explored in the 2017 Netflix documentary “The Keepers.” The documentary also delved into the killing of a young nun who taught at the school and whether she was killed to keep her silent about the abuse. Maskell was never criminally charged, although the archdiocese took away his ability to say Mass; he died in 2001.
By the time Linda and Liz started at Keough, Maskell had left. His replacement, however, the Rev. Brian Cox, was later found guilty of molesting boys and served prison time.
Both girls continued to suffer. Linda dropped out of Keough and got involved with a much older man who physically abused her, and, at 20, she gave birth to his child. She struggled with anorexia and bulimia and a series of unhappy relationships, although she eventually earned her GED.
Liz struggled too. Merzbacher had introduced her to alcohol and drugs, and she continued using them to numb her pain. She got kicked out of Keough for drugs. “That was what I needed to cope,” she said. “I was angry at the world.”
Liz spent a year at public school and then two years at Seton High School. Still deeply religious, she dreamed of being a nun. At 16, while at Seton, she grew close to a nun who seduced her; at the time, Liz thought of the relationship as consensual. (Although the relationship was not considered illegal at the time, it violates current laws.) As an adult, Liz realizes that she lacked the maturity to be involved with an adult. She said the nun, who subsequently left the sisterhood, later apologized to her. But the experience compounded her trauma.
“One was violent. One was kind,” said Liz, contrasting Merzbacher and the nun. “Both were devastating.”
Liz spiraled deeper into addiction. She couldn’t bear to be around her parents. She moved in with her sister at age 16, but sometimes slept outside. “I would rather sleep in a park than in a warm bed,” she recalls. “It was very hard to be around true love and kindness.”
She graduated from high school in 1979 and worked as a food service manager. She moved to Texas, California and Washington D.C., hoping for a fresh start. “I was deeply damaged by the time I was 18 and really unaware of it,” she said. “To carry all of that around and not even be able to name it.”
Then around 1980, Liz caught up with Weisman, the principal of her middle school, at a pub in Charles Village called “Our Father’s Place.” She told Weisman that Merzbacher had raped her.
About seven years later, Liz got sober and became a postulant with the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the first step toward becoming a nun. She decided she must again talk to Weisman about Merzbacher. What if he was still hurting children?
Weisman was then the principal of the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Guilford. Liz met with Weisman in her office and told her that Merzbacher molested her and many classmates, she said.
“[Weisman] said, ‘Before you go any further, are you considering a lawsuit?’” Liz recalls. “I said, ‘No, I’m telling this because I want to be one of your sisters and I want to know if he is still teaching.’”
“This next part is seared in my memory,’” said Liz. “She said, ‘I find it hard to believe it happened with that much frequency.’ She said, ‘People change. You need to forget it and get on with your life.’”
But Liz didn’t forget. Even though she was young and struggling to stay sober, she knew she needed to do something about Merzbacher. She told another nun, the then-principal of the Catholic Community Middle School, about the abuse. That principal said that Merzbacher no longer taught at the school and she did not know where he was.
Then in 1988 Liz told a representative of the archdiocese, who offered her $1,000 for counseling and said she could go to the police if she wanted. She did not; she was afraid Merzbacher would make good on this threats to kill her and her family.
Finally, at a funeral in 1993, she ran into a priest who was also a former classmate. He took her aside and asked if it was true that Merzbacher had raped her. The two decided to take action together.
Bringing Merzbacher to trial
Liz remembered where most of her classmates had lived. She knocked on the Formstone-clad houses of their parents and grandparents. Her classmates were now in their late 20s and early 30s, many with children of their own. One by one, they decided they needed to join the case against Merzbacher.
“The first person I called just burst out in tears,” Liz said. “She said, ‘Oh my God, I never talk about this, but my sister and I are both victims.’”
That year, Liz and the others met with Joanne Suder, an attorney who had represented other child sexual-abuse victims. After they told their stories, Suder announced that they needed to call the police, Liz said. The police took the allegations seriously and began calling more alumni of the school.
One of the people they reached out to was Linda, who at that point was newly married and had a 10-year-old son. The investigator asked if Linda knew why he was contacting her. Yes, she said, John Merzbacher. Then she told him her story.
“I just remember feeling like I was hit by a ton of bricks and I just wanted to melt,” Linda said. “I could feel the tears rolling down my face.”
Prosecutors worked with Liz, Linda and a dozen other of Merzbacher’s victims to draw up a case against him. He was arrested in 1994 and charged with 120 offenses related to the sexual abuse of students.
Prosecutors decided to bring Liz’s case against Merzbacher first; the allegations the others made against Merzbacher could not be brought up at the trial. TV cameras followed Liz in and out of the courthouse but did not show her face. She and the victims had decided to remain anonymous.
Then, tragedy. A former classmate and fellow abuse survivor, Eddie Blair, died of an overdose.
“He wouldn’t leave his apartment. He kept thinking Merzbacher was going to get him,” said Liz, adding that his parents reached out after his death. “His mother and father hugged me and thanked me for being his friend.”
In late spring 1995, surrounded by her siblings, former classmates and friends, Liz told the jury about the worst years of her life, how again and again her teacher had raped her.
Merzbacher’s defense attorney M. Cristina Gutierrez, told jurors that Liz “has a problem with perspective and telling the truth,” according to a Baltimore Sun article written at the time.
“It was horrible,” Liz said of the trial. “There was more than one time I wanted to take my own life.” But in the end, the jury believed her and found Merzbacher guilty.
After the verdict was announced, Liz revealed her identity to the news media: “I wanted to stand there and show my face because I decided I wasn’t going to be ashamed anymore.”
Merzbacher was sentenced to four life sentences for raping Liz. Prosecutors decided to drop the other cases against him since it seemed inevitable that he would spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Liz, Linda and 12 other Catholic Community alumni sued the archdiocese, seeking millions in damages for the abuse. The suit was thrown out because there was a three-year statute of limitations; their appeal was also denied. (State laws have since changed to allow child abuse survivors to bring civil suits up to age 38; Del. C.T. Wilson, an abuse survivor, plans to introduce legislation during the current General Assembly session that would do away with the age limit altogether.)
Linda moved to New Hampshire. Although Merzbacher was locked up, she still worried that he would escape, track her down and make good on his promise to kill her. “I would get this sense that he was in the woods watching me,” she said.
Later, the archdiocese approached Liz, Linda and other 15 other survivors of Merzbacher to offer them a payment. Liz received $100,000 in 2007; Linda received $42,000 in 2010.
Liz continued to work through her trauma with a therapist. She used her settlement from the archdiocese to attend college and earned a degree in religious studies. She also met and married the love of her life, with whom she recently celebrated 25 years together.
Final point of accountability
Liz has never relented in her crusade to hold Weisman accountable. She wrote to the superintendent of Catholic schools in 1996 asking that Weisman be removed as principal of Cathedral. “I find it inconceivable that the principal should not be held accountable for the atrocious crimes committed by an employee for seven years while under her direct supervision,” Liz wrote.
In 2010, Linda discovered that the Cathedral school had installed a plaque honoring Weisman at a playground and successfully convinced the archdiocese to have it removed.
Then in 2012, Liz and Linda learned that Merzbacher was fighting to be released on a technicality. Again, they banded together with former classmates to keep him behind bars. They created a petition, held rallies and told their story yet again. The abuse survivors rented a charter bus to take them to Virginia to witness the proceedings. Their efforts succeeded; Merzbacher, 81, remains in the Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County. The Catholic Community School of South Baltimore closed in 2012 due to declining enrollment.
The archdiocese supported their efforts to keep Merzbacher in prison. An archdiocesan spokesman noted the bravery of Liz, Linda and the others whose “courageous voices helped shine a light on his horrific and criminal acts.”
Yet the women remain frustrated that Weisman has never been held criminally accountable.
In 1994, Weisman addressed parents at the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, where she was then principal, and denied knowing that Merzbacher was abusing students when they were both at the Catholic Community School, according to media reports.
Eighteen years later, as the Baltimore Sun published a searing series of articles about the abuse at the Catholic Community Middle School — including allegations that Weisman had fired another teacher in the 1970s after he told her Merzbacher was molesting students — the archdiocese revealed that Weisman had been removed as principal of the Cathedral school in 2002 after an independent board reviewed her actions as principal at the South Baltimore school nearly 30 years before.
The board unanimously recommended “that Sister Eileen not remain in her position and not be employed in any position within the archdiocese that involves overseeing the safety of children.” An archdiocesan spokesman declined to provide more information about the board’s rationale.
After retiring in 2002, Weisman spent several years in Rome. Liz mailed a package to the head of Weisman’s order of nuns there, including the depositions of many of her former classmates describing how Merzbacher abused them and Weisman turned a blind eye.
Liz said she continues to hope for an apology or public acknowledgement from Weisman about her role in allowing the abuse to continue. “Even if she still maintains she didn’t know about it, she’s still accountable because it happened under her watch,” Liz said.
When the Maryland attorney general’s office launched its investigation into sexual abuse in the archdiocese in 2018, Liz, Linda and some of Merzbacher’s other surviving victims recounted their stories yet again to investigators. They are hopeful that the attorney general’s report will detail Weisman’s failings. How much did she know? Why didn’t she stop him?
Anxiety over the release of the attorney general’s report has clouded Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s for Liz, Linda and other survivors.
Once again, it’s Liz and Linda. Linda and Liz. Waiting together. Wondering if this report will be the last opportunity to hold Weisman accountable for her actions a half-century ago.
They’re hoping for the same thing they’ve wanted for years, a request echoed in a letter Liz wrote a decade ago to the School Sisters of Notre Dame in Rome. In the letter, she asked for an apology from Weisman, who, she wrote, “failed us as children.”
“This is the least she could do to address our grievous injuries,” she wrote. “Our request is not made from revenge, and quite frankly there is nothing that anyone could ever do to restore our childhoods.”