Catholic Review - Archdiocese of Baltimore [Baltimore MD]
May 1, 2023
By George P. Matysek Jr.
Lovingly displayed in a windowsill of Elizabeth Ann Murphy’s home in Timonium is a rectangular ceramic sculpture depicting a sailboat tossed on a stormy, turquoise sea. God’s outstretched hands hover over the fragile vessel, a reminder of his constant presence.
Standing near the painted ceramic are three other pieces of art: a figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a small wooden carving of Christ carrying his cross, and a little glass rooster – an ever-present symbol of betrayal.
For Murphy, who experienced horrific sexual abuse for three years while a student at Catholic Community School in South Baltimore in the early 1970s, the artwork offers consolation. It’s also a reminder of suffering.
The agony she endured wasn’t just at the hands of John A. Merzbacher, her abuser who is serving four consecutive life terms for his crimes against Murphy. It also came from a church that failed to protect its most vulnerable members. The suffering was intensified by fellow Catholics who didn’t believe her or chose to ignore her, she said.
Sitting in her home on her 62nd birthday nearly a week after Maryland Attorney General Anthony Brown released a searing April 5 report on sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, mostly from the 1940s until the 1990s, Murphy said she hopes Catholics will read the report and make themselves aware of what survivors have gone through.
Murphy, who has spent decades calling for justice for abuse survivors, acknowledged that the Archdiocese of Baltimore now has in place policies that help protect children from the kind of abuse she endured.
She is grateful for the support she received from Auxiliary Bishop Adam J. Parker, whom she said has reached out to her on multiple occasions – including at the time of the report’s release.
But she is angered by what she sees as a tendency by church leaders to focus on those positive changes without enough reflection on the pain of survivors.
“I’m so tired of the apologies without the actions or the wanting to focus on what the (arch)diocese is doing now and in the last 30 years,” said Murphy, a thin woman with steel-blue eyes whose mother named her after St. Elizabeth Ann Seton.
Noting that the attorney general’s report was released during Holy Week, Murphy said that before one can contemplate the Resurrection, one must meditate on the Passion.
“We pray all 14 Stations of the Cross,” she said. “We don’t skip this one or that one. We don’t leave any out. We don’t just skip to the Resurrection.”
Jesus was crucified nearly 2,000 years ago, Murphy said, yet Christians still commemorate his suffering and death today.
“Yet, in 30 years, we are expected to forget the Catholic school children victims of rape and torture and suffering,” Murphy said. “I wish I could forget the repeated rape and abuse I suffered as an 11-, 12- and 13-year-old at the hands of a (lay) Catholic schoolteacher. I truly do, but this trauma lives in the very cells of my body. This trauma continues to be triggered and intrudes in my life, uninvited.”
Murphy wants other Catholics to join her in calling for the release of all the names in the attorney general’s redacted report. She wishes other Catholics wouldn’t blame survivors for any financial difficulties the archdiocese may undergo as a result of lawsuits in the wake of the report’s release and a newly enacted law that lifts the statute of limitations on civil liabilities for child abuse.
“Pick up your cross,” she said. “Don’t try to explain it away. Don’t diminish the suffering of victims. Don’t blame us because the statute has changed. The (arch)diocese has used every temporal means that it could use to protect itself. Surely victims should have that same right to use a temporal means to find some justice.”
Murphy, who has found some sense of healing through counseling paid for by the archdiocese, noted that healing is not a linear process. For every step forward, there may be two steps back.
Although there was a time when she contemplated ripping up her baptismal certificate and sending it back to the archdiocese, she has found her faith to be a source of strength.
Murphy, who currently does not belong to a parish, has worshiped with a variety of faith communities over the years, including the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the Carmelite Monastery in Towson and Corpus Christi Parish in Baltimore.
She listened to the Litany of the Saints as she traveled downtown to the attorney general’s office to be present with other survivors who met with Brown prior to the report’s release. She wears a Benedictine medal, prays the rosary and believes deeply in Christ’s true presence in the Eucharist.
“The church is sinful and blessed, just like I am,” she said. “It’s just slower at recognizing its sinfulness … and, yet, where have I gotten the courage to go through a trial or stand up publicly and speak to media and to keep this moving? It’s my faith. The church could fall into the sea tomorrow. It does not change my belief in God.”
Murphy, who grew up in St. Mary, Star of the Sea Parish in South Baltimore, said there is a “simple” answer as to how the church found itself enmeshed in the abuse crisis.
“It’s because church leadership put power, prestige and possessions above the lives of the children entrusted to their care,” she said. “That’s how this happened. It’s no mystery.”
Patty Ruppert, a religion teacher at St. Joseph School in Cockeysville and the former principal of Sisters Academy of Baltimore, said she felt a sense of relief after the report was released. For months prior to its publication, the survivor of sexual abuse said she felt like a boulder was hanging over her head.
As a child at a Catholic school in Baltimore five decades ago, Ruppert was sexually abused by a lay teacher. After she confided to a priest, that priest abused her. She was later abused by another priest when Ruppert was working in the rectory of a Baltimore parish. When she was an adult, she had a sexual relationship with a third priest that she initially thought was consensual, but now realizes was exploitative as he manipulated the vulnerabilities she had confided to him.
Because of the betrayal Ruppert experienced after she had confided abuse for the first time, she has largely kept her experiences secret, telling only her husband and a few close friends.
“The story – my story – has been hidden and buried for a very long time because of the shame and guilt that comes with it all,” said Ruppert, the faith formation director of Immaculate Heart of Mary in Baynseville who shared her story publicly for the first time at Masses at her parish late last year.
Ruppert said she was angry the report was released during Holy Week.
“Easter is a time, like Christmas, when many people visit a church when they don’t otherwise do so on a regular basis,” she said. “The intentionality of the timing was clearly evident, and that made me angry because, once again, everyone is paying for the sins of a few.”
Ruppert said abusers and those who covered up abuse should be held accountable, but she noted that many of them are dead and must face an accounting by the ultimate judge. All but one of those who abused her is dead.
She hopes the release of the report will bring healing for the survivors whose stories weren’t believed and a “true accountability” by the Catholic Church.
“I think every seminary in the world should have a forum or seminar where faithful Catholics tell their stories to those who aspire to be priests,” Ruppert said. “In order to not repeat history and in order to learn from history, we need not tear down evidence of it; rather, we need to face it with the knowledge that wasn’t available during those 80 years. We need to own it and we need to vow to never let anything like this happen to anyone again. Ever.”
Ruppert said she supports releasing the redacted names in the report “to an extent.”
“I think if the redacted names are clergy who covered up what was going on (and) are alive, they owe it to God’s people to admit what was done and face the fallout from it,” she said. “The redacted names of living abusers have the right to at least have the opportunity to have their side heard.”
Ruppert, who has been married to her husband, Rick, for 30 years, serves as a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion at Immaculate Heart of Mary. She has also given retreats with her husband for Catholic Engaged Encounter.
“I have close family who are angry with me that I remain Catholic after all of this,” Ruppert said. “My faith, founded on Jesus Christ, is best expressed most fully in the Catholic Church.”
Emotionally, Ruppert said she has been on a roller coaster since the report’s release, having good days and bad days. She has a circle of people who support her no matter what, she said.
“I have come to accept that I am who I am because of where I have been,” she said. “But where I have been is not the same place where I am today or will be tomorrow.”
Anyone with knowledge of child sexual abuse must report it immediately to civil authorities. If clergy or other church personnel is suspected of committing the abuse, the Archdiocese of Baltimore asks that it also be reported to the archdiocesan Office of Child and Youth Protection at 410-547-5599.
Email George Matysek at gmatysek@CatholicReview.org
‘I’m a survivor’: Parishioner finds strength in faith even after abuse (Feb. 8, 2023)
Faith sustains Merzbacher abuse survivor (Aug. 19, 2010)
Attorney General’s Report on Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore (April 5, 2023)
Archbishop Lori’s Pastoral Letter: Apology, Healing & Action (April, 2023)