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 CNS Story:

ABUSE-SURVIVOR Sep-1-2010 (1,030 words) With photo. xxxn

As abuser seeks freedom, victim of Catholic school horror carries on


Elizabeth Ann Murphy discusses how faith helped her survive sex abuse by a teacher at Catholic Community School in Baltimore nearly 40 years ago. (CNS/Owen Sweeney, Catholic Review)

By George P. Matysek Jr.
Catholic News Service

BALTIMORE (CNS) -- When Elizabeth Ann Murphy was growing up in South Baltimore, she loved sneaking into the choir loft at St. Mary, Star of the Sea. Hiding away in the quiet church, the youngster would sit still and stare at the tabernacle.

"I always really had a strong sense of the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist," remembered Murphy, one of nine children whose family home was directly across the street from the parish. "I loved the church and I loved God."

John A. Merzbacher nearly shattered that deeply held faith.

Soon after Murphy began middle school at the Catholic Community School in 1972, Merzbacher raped her repeatedly. The English teacher, who kept a revolver in his Locust Point classroom, forced Murphy and other students to have sex with each other. He threatened to kill them and their parents if they told.

Murphy's physical torment ended when she graduated three years later. The psychological and spiritual pain would last much longer.

"For so long, I felt such shame," said Murphy, a slender 49-year-old woman with closely cropped hair and steel-blue eyes. "How could a person like me -- how could I go to Mass and love Jesus with this horrible secret? I felt like I couldn't approach the altar anymore."

In 1995, Merzbacher was sentenced to four consecutive life terms for his crimes against Murphy. Prosecutors decided not to proceed with other cases against him, dropping more than 100 additional charges from 13 alleged victims.

Merzbacher clung to his innocence throughout the hearings, but the former teacher is now on the verge of admitting guilt.

A federal appeal judge has said Merzbacher, 69, must be given the opportunity to accept a 10-year plea deal that the judge said should have been offered in 1994. Merzbacher's defense attorneys had purportedly failed to inform their client of the deal at his trial.

The Maryland attorney general is appealing the ruling and Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien has joined abuse survivors in urging the courts to keep Merzbacher behind bars.

If Merzbacher accepts, he will be released since he has already served 15 years in prison.

The renewed publicity has reopened old wounds for Murphy. It's her Catholic faith that gives her strength and calls her to forgiveness.

"Without the relationship I have with God," Murphy said, "there is no way I would be alive today."

Murphy family albums and films are filled with happy images of May processions and liturgical celebrations. Priests were frequent visitors to the Murphy home, and, on her first Communion, Murphy distinctly remembers feeling called to the religious life.

Surrounded by goodness at home, Murphy faced unspeakable evil at school. She didn't know how to handle it and was transformed into a melancholy girl who perplexed her parents.

"I felt so marred and so damaged that I didn't want anything to do with love," she said. "The more loving my family was, the more I just wanted them away from me."

During high school and long afterward, Murphy got caught up in drugs and booze. She has been in recovery for 17 years.

"What I finally realized was that there were not enough drugs or alcohol to numb the pain," she said. "It was affecting my relationship with God. I couldn't even pray. I couldn't get on my knees and try to pray because my knees shook too bad."

As an adult, Murphy was deeply pained not only by what she calls the "obvious lack of oversight" at Catholic Community School, but by what she believes was the lack of a pastoral response from the Archdiocese of Baltimore once the abuse became known. At Merzbacher's trial, she didn't feel like the church was on her side.

"When you put the power and prestige and possessions of the church above the lives of children who are entrusted in its care, then, to me, the church ceases to do its mission," said Murphy, whose father -- a Baltimore City policeman -- died without ever learning of her abuse.

At a time when some Catholics accused Murphy of making up the charges against Merzbacher in a ploy for money, Murphy's mother stood by her daughter. She prayed for her daughter relentlessly throughout the trial, often touching a relic of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the saint for whom Murphy was named.

"I noticed that her relic was broken," said Murphy, her voice choking with emotion and her eyes filling with tears. "I asked Mom what happened. She put her thumb through it praying for me."

When Merzbacher was finally convicted, Murphy went straight from the courthouse to the chapel at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. Following her mother's example, she prayed.

Murphy long ago forgave Merzbacher. Even though she warns that he is a serial child rapist who should never be released, Murphy prays for her tormentor daily.

Extending forgiveness to the church has been more of a challenge.

A turning point came in 2007. The day after Archbishop O'Brien was installed in Baltimore, he visited Murphy. He also wrote her a note, which Murphy keeps on her desk.

"You will never know how much that meant to me," she said. "When the archbishop looked me in the eye and said, 'This is never going to happen again on my watch,' I believed him."

Offering therapy has been the greatest way the archdiocese has helped survivors of sexual abuse, Murphy said. She has found it to be a source of healing.

"I long for the day when the entire Catholic community stands up together and says, 'No more,'" she said. "I personally need to hear these words -- not just from the pope or archbishop, but also from the Catholic community as a whole."

Everyone is aware of the "dark sin" of the church, Murphy said. That awareness makes each Catholic morally responsible, she said.

"There is no way of knowing whether the new policies of today will be effective," she said. "Only when this generation's children become adults will we really know the truth. When that day comes -- and God help us if we fail -- it will no longer be the church hierarchy's sin, it will be our sin."

END


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