John Merzbacher, a former teacher at Catholic Community School of Baltimore, who victimized dozens of Baltimore children in the 1960s and ’70s, has died in prison, where he was serving four consecutive life sentences. He was 81.
Early Sunday morning, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services notified one of the survivors of Merzbacher’s abuse of a “change in status” as of Saturday. “This is not an emergency; the offender is deceased,” the email stated.
Merzbacher died Friday in the infirmary at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover. There was no sign of foul play. His death certificate states that he died from natural causes, according to Latoya Gray, spokeswoman for Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
When prosecutors brought charges against Merzbacher in the 1990s, they said at least 40 former students alleged they had been raped or otherwise abused by him. The former teacher allegedly raped both boys and girls — sometimes at gunpoint — both at the school and at the Rockaway Beach Volunteer Fire Department in Essex.
An April report released by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office into abuse in the Baltimore Archdiocese referred to Merzbacher as “the most obvious example of systemic abuse” who had likely victimized “dozens” of students.
“The victims have endured decades of suffering and attribute their pain to having been sexually abused, beaten, humiliated, and threatened with death by Merzbacher when they were children,” the report stated.
Merzbacher maintained his innocence throughout the years. Investigators from the attorney general’s office said they interviewed him at the Eastern Correctional Institution, where he was serving his sentences, while preparing the report. “He denied doing anything wrong and said he would refuse parole rather than admit guilt,” the report stated.
Liz Murphy and Linda Malat Tiburzi, two women who said they were raped by Merzbacher and worked to see him prosecuted, had been waiting 50 years for justice — full accountability for Merzbacher’s actions and the people who enabled him.
“When I first received notification of criminal Merzbacher’s death, I felt nothing. Not one emotion,” Tiburzi said Sunday. “I read the notification several times. After some time passed, I felt relieved. Knowing that Merzbacher would not ever be able to walk the earth as a free man. Knowing that there was no way possible that he could ever harm children again.”
David Lorenz, Maryland director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said: “My heart goes out to all of his victims and the re-traumatization that they’re going through when they hear the news. What happened to them wasn’t their fault. It was all on Merzbacher. Hopefully they can set that aside and put the blame on him. I’m sorry if this brings up old bad wicked memories.”
Murphy said she wasn’t ready to comment about Merzbacher’s death: “I have many thoughts, but I think his family should have the opportunity to bury him first.”
There are dozens of allegations of abuse and sexual misconduct against Merzbacher detailed in the attorney general’s report. of Merzbacher’s survivors are former students at Catholic Community Middle School. But following his arrest in 1993, additional allegations of sexual abuse were reported by students and parents of students at Baltimore City public schools where he taught in the 1960s and early 1970s.
More than a dozen students testified in civil litigation in 1994 that, as middle school students at the Catholic Community Middle School, Merzbacher raped and tortured them and then threatened to kill them and their families, often while pointing a gun at their heads.
In one case, a woman in 1993 reported that Merzbacher sexually abused her from 1972 to 1975 when she was in grades six through eight at Catholic Community Middle School. There, the woman alleged that Merzbacher would rape her in the school while other students were outside eating lunch. She also alleged that Merzbacher: gave her and other students alcohol, would bring in other boys to sexually abuse her, brought a gun into school and held it while putting her on his lap, and would sometimes play Russian roulette with the gun and once shot it in the classroom over the heads of the students.
In the 1980s, the woman confronted principal Sister Eileen Weisman, who said that Merzbacher was no longer teaching. According to the report: “Weisman said about Merzbacher that ‘people change’ and that she found it hard to believe the abuse had happened with so much frequency.”
That woman, Murphy, shared the same allegations of abuse with The Banner, including her frustration after encountering Weisman.
The attorney general’s report stated that Merzbacher’s widespread abuse was allowed to continue even though Weisman had witnessed it directly.
“Numerous students, as well as a teacher at the school, testified under oath in connection with the civil litigation that they or their parents reported to Sister Weisman about Merzbacher’s abuse,” the report stated. “Moreover, at least three students testified under oath and/or alleged in their complaints that Sister Weisman personally witnessed Merzbacher beating or sexually abusing them.”
There is evidence, according to the report, that the archdiocese itself had knowledge of concerns about Merzbacher’s conduct by early 1974. The archdiocese had received reports that Merzbacher had brought a gun and alcohol to school — and was even placed briefly placed on administrative leave in February 1974 so that concerns could be investigated. He continued teaching at the school until 1979.
Weisman, 80, who resides at the School Sisters of Notre Dame motherhouse in North Baltimore, previously declined through a spokeswoman to speak with a reporter earlier this year.
“Now, as always, is an important time to keep those victim-survivors who Merzbacher harmed deeply in our prayers. We pray for their strength and we pray for their continued healing,” according to a statement from the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
In 2012, during the time of Merzbacher’s parole hearing, Cardinal Edwin F. O’Brien denounced Merzbacher and expressed support for his survivors.
“It is clear to me that the abuse they suffered has had an enormous impact on their lives and the lives of their families, and I fear that they will suffer anew if Merzbacher’s request to be released is granted,” O’Brien said. “As I have said before, the substance of Merzbacher’s actions, whether he was convicted by a jury or pleads guilty as he now seeks, remains the same—abhorrent and criminal—and justifies the judgment and multiple life sentences he has already received.”
The allegations of several of Merzbacher’s victims were explored in the 2017 Netflix documentary “The Keepers.” Although he is not mentioned in the documentary, two of his survivors later enrolled in Archbishop Keough High School, a new all-girls’ Catholic school in Southwest Baltimore. There, it is alleged to police officers and others, that the Rev. Joseph Maskell, the chaplain and school counselor, raped, physically and psychologically tortured, and sexually trafficked students. He died in 2001. He was never criminally charged.
This story will be updated.