RICHMOND, Va. — Linda Malat Tiburzi wanted a front-row seat inside a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals courtroom Tuesday, so judges could get a good look at her during a hearing involving a convicted child rapist who had taught at a Baltimore Catholic school.
Though it’s traumatic for Tiburzi to relive her alleged abuse at the hands of John J. Merzbacher, she said she and the 14 other men and women who took a bus from Pasadena wanted to show their commitment to keeping him behind bars.
“I want the judges to see my face,” said Tiburzi, 51, who said she was sexually abused by Merzbacher while she was a Catholic Community middle-schooler from 1973 to 1976. A criminal case involving that alleged abuse by the former English teacher was dropped when he got four life terms for assaulting another student. “We feel so strongly about keeping him in jail for life. We are not going to give up.”
The three-judge panel will determine in the coming months whether Merzbacher — who was sentenced in 1995 for rape, child abuse and perverted practice — has the potential to go free because his lawyer failed to tell him about a proposed plea deal.
Merzbacher, according to court documents, threatened and harassed students, raped girls, sodomized boys, and forced some of the children to have sexual relations with one another.
Under terms of the proposed plea agreement, which prosecutors said was never finalized, Merzbacher could have served only 10 years if he had pleaded guilty in 1995. The agreement also proposed that all other previously mentioned cases against him would be withdrawn.
Merzbacher, 71 and in prison, was not present at the hearing.
(Photos: Remembering Merzenbacher’s victims)
A federal judge ruled in 2010 that Merzbacher should be given the opportunity to take the plea deal if a Baltimore Circuit Court judge was willing to enforce it. Merzbacher’s lawyers argued in appeal briefs that Merzbacher should be offered the deal or released immediately, rather than giving a Circuit Court judge an option.
The Maryland attorney general’s office appealed the ruling.
Merzbacher’s lawyer, H. Mark Stichel, said Tuesday that the plea agreement was “brokered by a judge, who would have accepted it.” He noted that the plea would have resolved other cases pending at the time of the 1995 trial that was focused on sexual abuse of Elizabeth Ann Murphy, a student of Merzbacher’s in the 1970s. Stichel said his client would have taken the deal.
Other criminal cases, including the one related to Tiburzi, were dropped after Merzbacher was convicted of six counts of child rape and sexual abuse involving Murphy. Merzbacher began raping Murphy when she was 12.
Assistant Attorney General Edward Kelley used his time before the judges Tuesday to dispute statements that the deal had been finalized. He also disputed whether Merzbacher — who had maintained his innocence at his sentencing — would have taken a plea agreement.
Sean T. Caine, director of communications for the Archdiocese of Baltimore, said in a statement Tuesday that the church has no formal role in the criminal process, but its attorneys have offered assistance to prosecutors.
In a letter published Oct. 18 in the Catholic Review, Archbishop William E. Lori said the archdiocese first heard of the abuse by Merzbacher in 1988 and took steps to “prevent those who would harm children entrusted to our care.” The church has also offered victims counseling, and money in lieu of counseling, Lori said.
“Archbishop Lori is deeply concerned for the victims of John Merzbacher and is praying for them at this painful time,” Caine said. “The archdiocese is committed to doing everything possible to keep Merzbacher in prison because of the feared impact his release would have on his victims, as well as possibly others.”
Robert Duncan, 48, a Federal Hill accounting and billing professional who traveled to the hearing, said Merzbacher had called him names, like “moron, stupid and idiot,” so often that he believed the characterizations were true. For years after he left Catholic Community, Duncan said he suffered academically.
“Back in the ‘70s, we were mainly a blue-collar area,” Duncan said. “My dad would work two jobs. They thought we were getting a top-notch education. We were cheated and our parents were robbed.”
Bill Mannion of Sparrows Point said he wanted to attend as a show of support for the victims.
Mannion, 50, a mental health nurse and former Catholic priest, said, “All I can do is give it up to prayer.”