Catholic Review Column: Remembering the Painful Past

Next week, a federal appeals court will hear arguments regarding John Merzbacher’s request to be released from prison. John Merzbacher was a teacher at Catholic Community School in South Baltimore who sexually abused and terrorized multiple children during the 1970s. Without getting into the legal technicalities, Merzbacher and his attorneys claim he was never made aware of a plea agreement that would have enabled him to be released by now had he pled guilty at his trial in the mid-1990s.

The Archdiocese has supported the public campaign, led by Merzbacher’s courageous victims, to keep Merzbacher in prison. It has done so based on the horrific nature of Merzbacher’s crimes and their enormous and continuing impact on those he abused.

The hearing will likely be an emotional and painful time for Merzbacher’s victims, who must once again relive the abuse they suffered at his hands. Though it will be painful to relive, the Merzbacher case will be an occasion to remember that suffering of victims of child sexual abuse is ongoing and that they command a special claim on our prayers. It also presents an opportunity for us to restate our commitment as a Church to the vigilance that has dominated our attention these past many years.

I first became aware of John Merzbacher’s actions soon after I was appointed Archbishop of Baltimore. I met with some of his victims and read as much as I could to become familiar with the horrific facts, sad and disgusting as they are. I felt I owed it to the victims to better understand—as much as another person can—what they had endured. I also wanted to understand the role of the Church, what it knew and when, and how it responded to everyone involved.

The Archdiocese first learned of the abuse in 1988, when one of Merzbacher’s victims reported it to the Archdiocese. In accordance with its policies at the time, the Archdiocese met with the victim, offered her counseling assistance and encouraged her to report the matter to the Department of Social Services (DSS), which she did. The Archdiocese confirmed Merzbacher was no longer working in the Archdiocesan school system or any other Church-related entity and noted his file so he could never volunteer or work again for the Church. A few years later, that same victim spoke with a priest (who also was a former classmate) following a funeral. He instructed the woman to report the matter to authorities and he contacted the Archdiocese which again met with the victim and encouraged her again to report to the authorities. The Archdiocese itself reported the matter to DSS and the victim also reported it to the police who initiated an investigation which would result in a criminal indictment of Merzbacher. Incidentally, DSS responded to the Archdiocese’s report by stating it would not conduct an investigation because the alleged victim was by then an adult.

The Archdiocese conducted its own investigation to identify other possible victims and was in regular contact with the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s office, sharing information that it learned during the course of its investigation. Merzbacher was convicted in June 1995 and sentenced to four life terms plus 10 years. Plaintiffs filed civil claims against Merzbacher, the Catholic Community School, and the Archdiocese in 1994. Those claims were dismissed by the courts.

In 2002, the year the scope of the Church’s sexual abuse crisis came into view with Boston serving as the “epicenter,” the Archdiocese’s Independent Review Board, a group of nine lay people of different faiths and backgrounds, none employed by the Archdiocese, charged with reviewing the Archdiocese’s handling of child abuse cases, reviewed the Merzbacher case. It did so because it was concerned that Sr. Eileen Weisman, SSND, who had been principal at Catholic Community School during the years John Merzbacher abused students, was in 2002 the principal of the School of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. The Board reviewed the court documents and unanimously recommended to Cardinal Keeler that Sr. Eileen not remain in her position and not be employed in any position within the Archdiocese that involves overseeing the safety of children. Cardinal Keeler agreed with the recommendation and contacted Sr. Eileen’s superior. Sr. Eileen would announce her retirement shortly thereafter and has not worked or volunteered in the Archdiocese since.

I was grateful to hear that Cardinals Keeler initiated a practice of meeting with any victim who desires a personal meeting, offering a sincere apology and unqualified counseling assistance. Cardinal O’Brien continued this practice, as do I. On the day of my installation, I was eager to convey my commitment to the Merzbacher victims by signing a petition to keep him in prison.

Many Merzbacher victims have accepted the Archdiocese’s offer of financial support for counseling. Some victims have said that the offer of counseling assistance is insufficient and they would like some sort of monetary payment. In recent years, the Archdiocese has entered into voluntary discussions with victims to see if they would prefer to receive such financial support in one lump sum in lieu of ongoing counseling assistance. Though there is no legal requirement to do so, the Archdiocese has entered into these agreements out of pastoral concern for victims.

The Archdiocese has screened and trained over 90,000 employees and volunteers in its ongoing effort to ensure safe environments for children. These efforts will continue and we will look to strengthen them wherever we can to ensure that no child and no parent will ever again need worry about the safety of our Catholic institutions.

While we may not be able to impact the decision of the courts on the release of John Merzbacher, we can make sure that we have policies and a culture of child protection in place to prevent those who would harm children entrusted to our care.

Archbishop William E. Lori

Archbishop William E. Lori was installed as the 16th Archbishop of Baltimore May 16, 2012.

Prior to his appointment to Baltimore, Archbishop Lori served as Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., from 2001 to 2012 and as Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington from 1995 to 2001.

A native of Louisville, Ky., Archbishop Lori holds a bachelor's degree from the Seminary of St. Pius X in Erlanger, Ky., a master's degree from Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg and a doctorate in sacred theology from The Catholic University of America. He was ordained to the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Washington in 1977.

In addition to his responsibilities in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Archbishop Lori serves as Supreme Chaplain of the Knights of Columbus and is the former chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty.