Linda Malat Tiburzi, who turned the trauma of being raped as a girl by a Catholic middle school teacher into a life of advocacy for abuse survivors, died Tuesday, according to family and friends. She was 62.
“The focus of her life was to protect children and to be a voice for survivors who couldn’t speak out. She was a fierce advocate,” said Liz Murphy, her friend of 50 years. “There will never be anyone else like her. She was my sister warrior.”
The two women fought a long and often dispiriting battle for justice. They were among dozens of former students who accused teacher John Merzbacher of raping, assaulting and torturing them as students at the Catholic Community Middle School of Baltimore in the 1970s. Merzbacher faced trial only for his crimes against Murphy; he was found guilty and sentenced to four life sentences. He died in prison in May at age 81.
Tiburzi, who was raised by her grandparents, recalled in a 2022 interview with The Baltimore Banner that Merzbacher used to call her late at night when she was in middle school. One evening, she said, she was sitting on her front stoop when he drove by and took her away, then forced her to drink alcohol and perform oral sex on a boy in the back of his car. Merzbacher later repeatedly raped her in his classroom and a storage room and forced boys to rape her as well, she said.
Tiburzi maintained that Sister Eileen Weisman, the middle school principal at the time, had direct knowledge of the abuse. She said the nun had opened the door of the classroom as the girl, bare-chested, screamed for help while Merzbacher pinned her on the floor.
The students were afraid to tell their families about the abuse they had endured in Merzbacher’s classroom. They noted that he brought a gun to class and repeatedly threatened to kill their families if they reported him.
After middle school, Tiburzi attended Archbishop Keough High School, a now-shuttered Catholic girls’ school in Southwest Baltimore where two priests are also alleged to have raped and sexually assaulted numerous students. She told The Banner last year that she 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 eating disorders and a series of unhealthy relationships, but she eventually earned her GED.
Years later, in 1993, Murphy contacted Joanne Suder, an attorney who had represented many child sex abuse victims. Suder called police and prosecutors, who began to build a case against Merzbacher.
Murphy also reached out to Tiburzi, who was then newly married and had a 10-year-old son to whom she was very devoted. The two had been friends in middle school and rekindled their bond as adults. Murphy was working as a house painter at the time and Tiburzi helped out with painting jobs as the two discussed the trauma they had experienced.
Prosecutors decided to try Merzbacher first for the crimes against Murphy. The trial proved emotionally difficult for Murphy, as the defense attorney tried to portray her as a liar. Tiburzi was Murphy’s confidante throughout the trial, writing dozens of poems on index cards to encourage her.
The battles did not end after Merzbacher’s conviction. In 2010, Tiburzi discovered that The School of the Cathedral in Guilford had installed a plaque honoring Weisman at a playground; she successfully convinced the archdiocese to remove the plaque.
Then in 2012, the women learned that Merzbacher was fighting to be released on a technicality. They banded together again with former classmates and were successful in keeping the rapist behind bars.
Tiburzi worked as a waitress and at a nursing home, but her greatest passion was advocating for others. Sexual abuse survivors passed her number around and called her for support and advice. “She chose to use her suffering to help other people and fight for justice,” Murphy said.
Tiburzi eagerly awaited the release of the Maryland Office of the Attorney General’s hefty report that detailed widespread child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore over eight decades. But she was disappointed when the report came out in April because she felt that it did not go far enough in holding the church accountable, Murphy said. She was particularly disappointed by the archdiocese’s recent decision to declare bankruptcy, which halted lawsuits against the organization. And Tiburzi remained disturbed that Weisman, the nun who she said witnessed her abuse, never faced charges or issued an apology, Murphy said.
Tiburzi was “undaunted when it came to standing up to the Archdiocese of Baltimore,” Murphy said.
Weisman in 1994 denied knowing that Merzbacher was abusing students when they were both at the Catholic Community School, according to media reports. However, the archdiocese confirmed that she was removed as principal of School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in 2002 after an independent board reviewed her actions as principal at the South Baltimore school nearly 30 years before.
“She gave as much as she could for herself. She liked to laugh, but that was a cover for all the torment she went through.”
Dianna Hughes, speaking of her niece, Linda Malat Tiburzi.
An aunt, Dianna Hughes, said Tiburzi appeared to have died in her sleep at home on Tuesday. The cause of death was not immediately apparent.
“I called her ‘my little Linda,’” said Hughes, who helped raise Tiburzi and loved her like a daughter. She described how when her late husband had Alzheimer’s, Tiburzi would arrive each week singing the song of his alma mater, Southern High School, to cheer him up.
“She gave as much as she could for herself,” said Hughes. “She liked to laugh, but that was a cover for all the torment she went through.”
Tiburzi spent hours on the phone each day talking with abuse survivors. She maintained a vigorous presence on Facebook, sharing posts about the archdiocese, her beloved Orioles, and astronomy, one of her many passions.
One of her final posts was about seeing Jupiter’s moons. “Eyes to the sky,” she wrote. “Never know what you’ll see.”