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Deaf victim of sex abuse is suing pope, and going public with his story for the first time
September 23rd, 2010
09:10 AM ET

Deaf victim of sex abuse is suing pope, and going public with his story for the first time

Editor’s note: A one-hour CNN special, “What the Pope Knew,” will air Sept. 25 and Sept. 26, 8pm and 11pm ET. This story is drawn from that exclusive report.

By Scott Bronstein
CNN Special Investigations Unit

MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin – Terry Kohut has kept a dark secret for nearly 50 years. Now he is breaking his silence, becoming a key figure in the sex-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church and the growing controversy over what Pope Benedict XVI did about it.

When Kohut was barely a teen, and for years afterward, he says, he was sexually molested and assaulted by the headmaster and priest of the school where he lived, St. John’s School for the Deaf, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. What occurred there is one of the most notorious cases of sex abuse in the Catholic Church.

Kohut was not alone. From 1950 to 1974 the headmaster of St. Johns, Father Lawrence C. Murphy, raped and molested as many as 200 deaf boys, according to court and church documents.

Kohut has now filed the first sex-abuse lawsuit against the Vatican actually naming Pope Benedict, previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, as a defendant.


Ratzinger was once head of the Vatican’s powerful CDF, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, charged in certain circumstances with investigating the sexual abuse of minors by priests. And though church records show the abuse by Father Murphy was brought to the attention of Ratzinger and the CDF years ago, a church trial against the headmaster was stopped and he was allowed to remain a priest.

The Vatican’s “policy of secrecy” in abuse cases, and its “directives to conceal the sexual abuse of children” by priests, the lawsuit says, helped bring about the abuse of Kohut and others by Father Murphy.

Kohut has never before gone public or spoken about what Father Murphy did to him. He has remained anonymous in the suit, listed only as “John Doe 16,” one of dozens of men alleging abuse.

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Kohut, 60, spoke with his hands and through an interpreter, describing how the abuse by Father Murphy started.

“I went into his office, the door was closed,” he said. “And Father Murphy said, ‘Take your pants down. And so I did… you know, he was always in his black attire with a white collar, and you know … I was questioning why he would ask me to do that. Here he is, a priest, and – I have to obey him. And he proceeded to touch me.”

What happened to Kohut and the other deaf boys -– and the handling of the Murphy case by Ratzinger’s office - are central issues in a widening examination of the church’s role in covering up sexual abuse by priests. Did that approach reach as high as the man who would become the pope?

“I think what the Murphy case shows is the deference that Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope Benedict would give to the priests,” said David Gibson, a pope biographer and author of “The Rule of Benedict.” Ratzinger, like other Vatican officials “would always accede to the priest’s wishes first, rather than the victim’s wishes, rather than justice for the victims. They were secondary to what the priest wanted and what he felt was best for keeping things quiet and taking care of the institutional church.”

Steven Geier and Carl Nelson were also deaf students who say Father Murphy sexually assaulted them repeatedly. They say Father Murphy would prowl the dorm at night, visiting boys in their beds, raping and sexually assaulting them. He would also routinely assault and molest his victims in one of the church’s most sacred places – the confessional – church documents show.

Father Murphy is believed to have picked out victims who were especially vulnerable, or had been through tragedy already in their young lives. Terry Kohut fit that pattern. His older brother was electrocuted and died when he was just 10 years old. The next year, their father hanged himself. And the following year Kohut’s only close companion, his dog, died. “It all really tore me up…. I saw Father Murphy and I thought that he could be a second father. But to my shock he took advantage of that.”

Minnesota attorney Jeff Anderson is the lead lawyer in Kohut’s lawsuit. Anderson has filed hundreds of lawsuits for sexual abuse victims of priests, and has obtained a massive trove of internal Vatican documents to build his case against the pope. He says numerous abuse cases show that Vatican officials all the way to the top, including then Cardinal Ratzinger, did little to help the victims, and were mostly interested in protecting the church from scandal.

Father Murphy was “one of the worst pedophiles” in U.S. history, says Peter Isely, a leader in SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Isely, of Milwaukee, says he himself was raped repeatedly by a priest as a child. He has led groups of victims to Rome to criticize the church and demand accountability – especially in the case of Father Murphy.

“This is the story of a man raping and assaulting 200 deaf children,” he says. “To think that there are all these children being raped -– these disabled deaf children - who can’t even scream out, can’t speak out. It’s monstrous.”

“It wasn’t easy living in the dorm,” said Geier, 60, through a deaf interpreter. “There were no parents there. No police. We were stuck. It was like a prison. You can’t get out.”

Groups of boys tried to tell local police and even the local District Attorney in Milwaukee about what was being done to them, according to Kohut, Geier, Nelson and others CNN interviewed. But no one ever believed their story, and local police even drove them back to the school, returning the boys to Father Murphy.

After years of allegations and reports of abuse, and threats of lawsuits, local bishops finally moved Father Murphy in 1974 to remote northern Wisconsin. There, more abuse allegations later surfaced.

On July 17, 1996 the Archbishop of Milwaukee, Rev. Rembert Weakland, wrote to then-Cardinal Ratzinger at the CDF, describing Father Murphy’s abuse and his “use of the confessional to solicit sinful actions.” Rev. Weakland asked Cardinal Ratzinger how to proceed.

After eight months and two more letters to the Vatican, Rev. Weakland heard from Cardinal Ratzinger’s secretary, telling him to proceed with a secret church trial, which could result in Father Murphy being defrocked, or removed from the priesthood. The trial preparations were under way, and the case was moving ahead. One church document describing the local investigation results said the Murphy situation “may very well be the most horrendous, number-wise, and especially because these are physically challenged, vulnerable people.”

But as the secret trial preparations moved ahead, on Jan. 12, 1998, Father Murphy wrote a personal letter to Cardinal Ratzinger.

“The accusations against me were for actions alleged to have taken place over twenty-five years ago,” Murphy wrote. “I am seventy-two years of age, your Eminence, and am in poor health. I have repented of any of my past transgressions.” The priest basically asked to be left alone, writing “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood. I ask your kind assistance in this matter.”

After Father Murphy’s personal letter to Cardinal Ratzinger, and despite the entreaties of the local archbishops and the detailed case file against Father Murphy, something seemed to change. Cardinal Ratzinger’s secretary wrote again to Archbishop Weakland, but this time the letter and approach from Rome struck a different chord, seemingly sympathetic to the Father Murphy.

Cardinal Ratzinger’s secretary described Father Murphy’s personal letter, and then asked Archbishop Weakland “to give careful consideration” to “pastoral measures” instead of a trial, such as counseling and supervision “destined to obtain the reparation of scandal and the restoration of justice.”

The local archbishops disagreed, and one wrote back to Rome that “scandal cannot be sufficiently repaired, nor justice sufficiently restored, without a judicial trial against Father Murphy.” And in May 1998, Archbishop Weakland and several other Milwaukee officials flew to Rome to meet with Cardinal Ratzinger’s team about the case. Notes from the Wisconsin Archdiocese log of that meeting state: “It became clear” that Cardinal Ratzinger’s office “was not encouraging us to proceed with any formal dismissal…”

Finally on August 19, 1998, Archbishop Weakland wrote that he would follow the CDF’s suggestion and stop the trial of Father Murphy, and instead “put together a pastoral plan” for him.

That meant Father Murphy remained a priest for the rest of his life. He died in 1998 and was buried in Milwaukee with the full dignity and honors of a Holy Roman Catholic priest in good standing, angering many who knew what he had done.

The Vatican has called the Murphy case “tragic,” issuing a statement earlier this year saying it “involved particularly vulnerable victims who suffered terribly from what he did. By sexually abusing children who were hearing-impaired, Father Murphy violated the law and, more importantly, the sacred trust that his victims had placed in him.”

The Vatican pointed out that more than two decades passed before Murphy’s abuse came to the attention of local church officials, police, and the Vatican.

Its actions, the Vatican stated, were taken “in light of the facts that Father Murphy was elderly and in very poor health, and that he was living in seclusion and no allegations of abuse had been reported in over 20 years.”

In a rare interview, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, the Vatican’s prosecutor, told CNN he understands the frustration and anger in the Murphy case.

“If the case would have been decided today with the knowledge we have, the judgment may have been different… We’re talking about human judgment here.” Asked whether the judgment by Cardinal Ratzinger was faulty in the Murphy case, Monsignor Scicluna replied, “I wouldn’t say faulty because it is a judgment that took care of reparation, of scandal in the sense that it expected a public admission of guilt and it also ensured that Father Murphy be kept in a ministry which did not constitute a risk.”

Asked if the Murphy decision were a mistake, Monsignor Scicluna said, “No, I wouldn’t call it a mistake. I would call it a different take on a very difficult case.”

But Terry Kohut and other victims say justice for them could not even begin without Father Murphy losing his title and good standing as a priest.

Kohut, whose lawsuit alleges that through a policy of secrecy “the Holy See knowingly allowed, permitted and encouraged child sex abuse by its priests, including Murphy,” has a question for the pope today:

“I would ask him why? Why did you stop that trial? Why did you give pity to Father Murphy? I mean what about me, what about the 200 other boys?”

Steven Geier agrees and has his own message to the Pope:

“I believe this pope knew everything. He knew it was happening. I feel like all he did was ignore every deaf child who was abused by Father Murphy. In their eyes the church comes first, not the kids. They asked us to forgive them, forgive Father Murphy and there is no way that we could ever forgive him. Tell the pope to stop all this bull-.”

Kohut has written numerous letters to church officials about the abuse. Some of them were sent to top Vatican officials, including Cardinal Ratzinger.

In a letter to Father Murphy in 1995, Kohut wrote:

“I would lay awake every night, shaking in fear that this would be a night you would touch me. Can you imagine that? Can you? Jesus on the Cross on the wall saw you coming every night to molest us. He must have been shocked and grieved every time. I hope he cried like we did, because we were innocent children.”

Kohut says Father Murphy never responded.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Christianity • Pope Benedict XVI

soundoff (1,247 Responses)
  1. Andrew Junker

    I'm 15... Why would God allow this??? wait- there is no God, proof more that if God is real, he is evil! and I could go on and on, I hope this poor guy can get some justice and maybe feel a little better

    September 23, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
  2. Ana Ballas

    My niece was abused by members of another church – The Watchtower Inc., I hope all the people that has been abused by different religion membes could step out – to denounce all religions so people will take better care of the children. We need to save the children from beasts hidden under religious blankets.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:05 pm |
  3. jane doe

    may the criminals rot in Hell for eternity!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  4. john

    this among countless others just proves that the church is all a big scandle. if church and god is all about peace love and forgivness and there is a god then why is there so much hate and corruption in this world. the church and religion is all just a cult and a buisness.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      john,
      Mankind is at war with evil. Do not be fooled into thinking that satan is not real. So many ecclesial communities never mention sin or any of that…people do not want to hear that sinning is evil and that their end will correspond to their deeds. 2 Cor 11:15

      September 23, 2010 at 10:48 pm |
  5. kazz

    http://www.PutThePopeInJail.com

    September 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  6. denise

    I am a Roman Catholic and strongly believe in my faith. I do not condone what has happened to these people by any means. I hope the victims get the help that they need, and the ones that have committed these crimes be brought to justice. I think that the priests need to be accountable. I believe in my faith, but little trust in priests.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • Mike M

      Don't hold it against all priests that there were a few bad apples. Pope Paul VI appointed a number of weak Bishops who were the ones mostly responsible for allowing this stuff to happen.

      CNNs misleading reporting notwithstanding, Pope Benedict has been working hard to improve the Church (as John Paul II did... but Benedict is doing a much better job from what I can see.)

      September 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  7. qro21

    Ratzinger should be removed as Pope and a complete reform should be done to priesthood. As a catholic I am disgusted and embarassed by some of our priest's actions, it's not to wonder why many of us are losing faith in our Church. As for the law suit I hope that rRatzinger is indicted and sent to jail for covering up all the atrocities perpetrated by priests.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  8. Deaf Culture Lesson

    Dear MSNBC,

    When referencing a Deaf person, there are 2 different types of "deaf".

    "Deaf" with a capital "D" refers to a deaf person who uses ASL and is active in the Deaf community.

    "deaf" with a lower case "d" refers to the medical term of being born deaf or those who do not use ASL as their primary language.

    I am assuming that Kohut is Deaf, as he needed an interpreter. But knowing about Deaf culture and Deaf pride is needed when properly giving credit.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  9. BernieC

    Yes, what these priests did was wrong. However, I have one comment, and I really don't care who likes it and who doesn't. I see a lot of comments from people saying the US Government should step in. For all of you who like to use "Separation of Church and State" to defend every argument you have against religion in this country, mostly because you don't understand the original purpose of said separation, why aren't you crying that now???? Oh wait, because you would love to see the downfall of all religions

    September 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      How about because the abuse of children is not a religios issue – it's a legal issue and it's the government's job to ensure the law is followed.

      September 24, 2010 at 7:05 pm |
  10. Lulu

    and you guys call muhamed pedophile? Many of your fathers from charces are pedophinle and they forgive yours sins! What a joke!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:02 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Lulu,

      A priest at ordination becomes configured to Jesus Christ as in Persona Christi. This is called Holy Orders and is a Sacrament. Reconciliation/Confession is another Sacrament. When we confess our sins to a priest we are verbalizing our sins [because the Bible says to confess our sins to one another]: James 5: 16 ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed….’ This is one reason Martin Luther wanted the book of James thrown out….he did not like confession!

      A priest who has sin on his soul can still administer Sacraments and the Sacraments are valid. Holy Matrimony, Baptism, so on, are valid. When we hear that we have receive absolution from our sins, it is not the priest who is absolving us but Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our high priest and ordained priests help Him carry on His Priesthood.

      September 23, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
  11. Rabin Pradhan

    Christians are the sickest people. They r the ones talking religion the most among all. N they r the ones committing the most sins.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
    • Ben

      you don't know that

      September 23, 2010 at 12:29 pm |
  12. Meg

    FINALLY! It's a crying shame that the Catholic church has been allowed to conduct itself this way – like a crooked corporation. The article points out what anyone with common sense has noticed since the deluge of abuse cases have come to light: the church was only interested in protecting itself. The corporate machine that is the Catholic church has not only abused and taken advantage of its own followers, it has cast a pall on all those of the Catholic faith and broken their trust.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
    • Peacemaker

      Yes, Meg, you are right. That's why those of us who remain Catholic must continue to speak out, protest and work for change. Believe me, Jesus does not approve of the Vatican, its Cardinals with the Versage slippers, robes and gold rings!

      I am ashamed of the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church; but "they" are not the Church, we all are.... those of us in the pews. I pray everyday for change, for a priest or a member of the Laity to step forward and shout "NO MORE" at the Vatican! Unfortunately, too many Catholics are still in denial. Sad.

      September 23, 2010 at 3:29 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Peacemaker,

      Any person who has been Baptized is baptized into the body of Christ and are part of the Church. You cannot rightfully exclude clergy. Anyone who does not do the will of our Father in Heaven has a good chance of being cut off from the vine [or is then no longer a member of the body] but you or I do not know who if anyone is ‘cut off’ because that is only for the Father to know.

      September 24, 2010 at 6:41 pm |
  13. Mary Lynn

    50 years passed. He let other children be abused without speaking out. 20 years passed, before the Vatican was contacted the first time. Why are they not sueing Milwaukee Police and District attorney? They reported the crimes! Nothing was done. The police drove them back to their rapist. Yet something that happened 50 years ago on another continent, and the Vatican should be held liable. Were they trying to do damage control? Of course, what else can be done, especially after the statute of limitations has run out. This is about money. If they wanted true justice, they would have pursued the people who physically put them in the car, and made them go back for more. He was not removed as a priest because he DIED. As to Greg's comments- How could any intelligent person put down all Catholics? That is like saying all Muslim's are extremists. Rather than Catholic bashing. Critics should come up with a way to stop all Pedophiles. If they are so superior, and know a way the Church can handle issues that happened years and years ago, why not say something productive to get something accomplished. The Pope is not a figure head, he is the leader of the 1.1 billion Catholics of the 6.7 billion people on this earth.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  14. Benjamin

    Another fallacious story by CNN and its liberal anti-religion staff. Here are the facts people: Fr. Murphy is a disgusting man. What he did is horrible. Those who knew about it and did not stop him are also complicit, such as Bishop Weakland. Here are more important facts: When the abuse occurred Ratzinger was in Germany (the abuse occurred before 1975). Ratzinger came to Rome in the early 1980's. Ratzinger was notified of the abuse in 1996 - over 20 YEARS LATER. Fr. Wright was retired and died 2 years later in 1998. Ratzinger had absolutely nothing to do with the abuse or coverup.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  15. PJ

    This is similar to the lawsuit filed against the Vatican by John Paul II's friend Father Marcial, founder of the Legionaires of Christ who fathered a number of children. Two of his sons are suing the Vatican for allowing Marcial to sodomize them for years. Marcial is now dead. Instead of disbanding his notorious Order, Benedict took it under his wing and it continues to function including operating the Vatican Hostel in Jerusalem. Benedict should be taken to the World Court.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  16. The Jackdaw

    Child Molesters and other types of creeps are found everywhere. The church cannot be directly blamed for having them in their midst, but when the hierarchy covers for them by hiding the truth and making excuses, they become every bit as much to blame as the sick freaks that commit the crimes to begin with. The church is a human organization. It was founded, built, and maintained by humans and humans alone. It is subject to the same faults as humanity. It needs to be held accountable. Ie needs to go away.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  17. Lee

    Please don't confuse the Catholic Church (the faithful in the pews every Sunday) with the Vatican (the hierarchy in Rome). The great majority of Catholics are disgusted by this scandal and agree that all who are guilty of the crime of molestation and all who are guilty of covering it up should be punished both here on earth and after. We are sickened by this. This tragedy destroys our faith in our leaders, but not our faith in God or our beliefs.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:58 am |
    • La4life

      Hog wash! Where was your God when all of this was happening to innocent children? What God would allow such a thing?

      September 23, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      La4life,

      Yes, God could take away our freewill and make us as robots but then we would not be happy. People who use their freewill to do evil is not God’s fault. If you want to blame someone, blame satan and the person who committed the sin. If you don’t believe in satan and his cohorts, then just blame yourself whenever you sin.

      September 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
  18. Lori

    This is enough to make one reconsider stoning people. Away with this depravity!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  19. Laura Bachner

    This is just one of the many reason why I don't do religion. Just the thought of what these boys and many others children have gone through in the name of obedience to a priest/nun/minister etc.and religion makes me ill. This is just one of many reason's I will never introduce religion to my children!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:57 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Laura Bachner,

      How do you protect your children from pedophiles in schools, daycare, sporting events, doctors, your neighbors, your relatives?

      September 23, 2010 at 9:41 pm |
    • Kate

      @CatholicMom

      Since you asked, most people do so by those pedophiles being locked up to serve sentences for their attacks upon children, and then being required to register as s3x offenders and being legally barred from being put in positions where they can reoffend as easily.

      As opposed to the ones having an international organization that swears victims to secrecy using extortion and terror tactics, hides the pedophiles from the authorities, tells them if they say half a dozen hail mary's they'll be forgiven, then ships them off someplace else giving them a new target rich environment to prey in while denying their existence as pedophiles to the world, refusing to warn the parents of potential victims that there is a monster in their midst, and attacking any victims who dare to speak out, trivializing their suffering, and, worse of all, burying these creatures of darkness with their names intact on consecrated ground after their deaths, while condemning their victims who commit suicide from the shame and pain of being abused by these monsters to burial outside churchyards or without the final sacraments because they are suicides – regardless that it was those pedophiles the Church protects and condones and facilitates that drove those victims to take their own lives in the first place.

      Any other questions?

      September 23, 2010 at 11:50 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Kate,
      I WASN’T asking Laura what she would do AFTER her children were attacked but how she was to keep the pedophiles away from her children since she said that keeping her children away from religion was going to prevent clerical attacks upon them….

      September 24, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
    • Kate

      @CatholicMom

      I think you're fully aware that my response addressed your question about how she would reasonably expect to keep her children away from pedophiles in those positions.

      I think you just tried to redirect the argument away from the listing of reasons I added as to how the Catholic Church has made it impossible for those safeguards to protect our children to work by deliberately bypassing the principles the rest of society operates under to make them possible.

      It's unfortunate but keeping her children away from religion to begin with is the only way for her to defend them against clerical abuse, because the Catholic Church has decreed that it is above and outside the requirements society has determined are needed to protect our children, refused to implement them, and so declared itself a high-risk no-consequence no-safety organization.

      Else why would it have been up in arms about Belgian authorities getting their hands on the Church's secret files on pedophile priests?

      Oh yeah, I forgot – those secret files showed over 300 new cases of abuse that were kept secret, the priests shuffled off elsewhere. That would explain their furore at the Vatican.

      September 24, 2010 at 12:22 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      So, Kate, should Laura keep her kids out of daycare, sports, schools, too? Or take the chance, sent off to these places, events…and hope the pedophiles aren’t there on those days, but then if they are and one of her children fall prey to them, it won’t be so horrific because they will be caught and punished properly?

      September 24, 2010 at 6:27 pm |
    • Kate

      @CatholicMom

      I think you need to re-read your question, and then my answer.

      I'd say the chances of her kids being exposed to pedophiles in the first place in those situations is far less than the risk of exposing them to pedophiles in a church, because society has in place safeguards to reduce the chances of pedophiles having the chance to molest our children, whereas the Catholic Church not only bypasses those safeguards, it facilitates and enables molestation by policy.

      You're trying to shunt the timeline around and still have refused to recognize the fact that, as a mother, your own Church's policies put your children at statistically greater risk of being exposed to pedophiles than the risk would be in any other place yours kid might go.

      Just clarifyin'

      September 24, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Kate,
      you said, 'statistically greater risk' .....
      So when I use statistics for abortion numbers since 1973 put out by credible sources you say I can't use such numbers.....but go ahead....use credible statistical numbers to prove your point here....[remember, 'credible'].

      September 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
  20. Mark

    I think prison is the best option. Other inmates pay "special" attention to pedophiles.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:57 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.