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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. Norm

    Wow look at all the people that felt the need to add their two cents.
    Keep going...I have almost enough to make a dollar.
    None of it is worth much more than that anyway.
    Hipocrites...
    Lets see...the "deaf" boy heard Father Murphy tell him to take down his pants.....so he did.
    It's a miracle!!!
    These people are all just trying to get some fame and fortune.
    It's so obvious. Come back with some proof and then we'll talk.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  2. SilverHair

    Just what do all of you want to do with the Black Bishop Eddie Long now accused in Atlanta? Seems like his accusations just vanished from view. Is there something 'different' here? Where's the indignation in this case?

    September 23, 2010 at 12:41 pm |
    • Frogist

      @SilverHair: The difference is that the Pope and Vatican are the highest authorities in the Catholic church... that is all Catholic churches. This is not just one person in a church who abused people. This seems to be a systematic international cover up of se-xual abuse from the very top of Catholicism that spans decades. That is a little different than the Atlanta case.

      September 23, 2010 at 5:08 pm |
  3. Burbank

    “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.”
    In other words, let me get off scott free – which he did!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
    • Christ said......

      He pays in the next life.

      September 23, 2010 at 6:53 pm |
  4. Henry_Patriot

    F*** em....

    September 23, 2010 at 12:40 pm |
  5. Help Here

    Hey Guys, will you visit SaveStan.ORG a friend of mine with 4 babies is fighting for his life..... Thanks

    September 23, 2010 at 12:39 pm |
  6. peacelover

    George Bernard Shaw said:
    I have always held the religion of Muhammad in high estimation because of its wonderful vitality. It is the only religion which appears to possess that assimilating capability to the changing phases of existence which make itself appeal to every age – I have prophesized about the faith of Muhammad that it would be acceptable tomorrow as it is beginning to be acceptable to the Europe of today. Medieval ecclesiastics, either through ignorance or bigotry, painted Muhammadanism in the darkest colours. They were, in fact, trained to hate both the man Muhammad and his religion. To them, Muhammad was an anti-Christ. I have studied him, the wonderful man, and in my opinion, far from being an anti-Christ, he must be called the Saviour of humanity.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  7. Chantel Duceppe

    I think any organization or person given authority will ultimately abuse it. If the Pope is truly following St. Peter, then he should welcome exposing himself to attack and even wrongful accusation (if indeed they are wrongful); it's after all what St.Peter would have done. Instead of being preoccupied wearing his red Prada shoes, he ought to replace them with the sandals of the first Christians. He should cast down his mitre and golden robes and take the path of St. Peter and let history and God be his judge. Christ concerned himself with one lost lamb even when the whole flock was safe. Children must ALL be protected and a lost innocence is crime against humanity and nature – it's an abomination!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Chantel Duceppe,

      John 20:21 (Jesus) said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."
      What Jesus did next was breathe on them and they received the Holy Spirit. One other time Jesus breathed on someone, it was Adam and He breathed life into him.

      How did the Father SEND His Son? With Authority. He passed this Authority on to Peter when He gave him the Keys to the Kingdom of God, His Church.

      If you think ‘ any organization or person given authority will ultimately abuse it, you have no Faith in what Jesus Christ did.

      September 25, 2010 at 8:42 pm |
  8. Ezequiel

    God did not let this happen. These situations occur because these priests do not have God in their lives. They follow the traditions of men and serve another being that is not God. Don't be fooled. This is exactly what the prince of this world wants you to think. That all religions are bad and corrupt. Pray to God to reveal His truth to you as He did to me.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  9. MikinAz

    Says he, "repented of any of my past transgressions.” – gee thats nice for his faith but not enough for the real world. Here's a novel idea...Skip the, "reports to the church" step – it is a conflict of interest. All reports go straight to police, this is a legal matter not one that should be kept, "internal to the church". Police investigate, charges get filed, trials are held, verdicts, sentences. After the criminal justice system is through with the child molesters then the church can decide if they want to keep them as a member of their clergy while they rot in prison (if the code allows them to). All in favor?

    September 23, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  10. Mama500

    I don't understand why he would sue the Church and the Pope? Does the Church and the Pope have the responsibility of enforcing the law in Wisconsin? The article says they went to the police and the police drove them back to the school. The police and the law in Wisconsin are at fault here. They are the ones who failed the children. They are the ones who should be sued because they have the responsibility of enforcing the law NOT a religious organization. Was the church going to send their police to Wisconsin? Not to mention, you mean to tell me this man did this for all of these years and no other adult was aware of what was happening. Was Murphy the only adult in the school? No, definitely not. It was a school with probably lots and lots of teachers and adults around. Bit lets not blame the police or the law or all of these adults. Lets blame the pope. – That makes a lot of sense

    September 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  11. Joe

    nice to see someone going after the pope..maybe if more people came forward we shut the cults down..and keep children from being brainwashed and molested.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  12. peacelover

    Annie Besant said:
    It is impossible for anyone who studies the life and character of the great Prophet of Arabia, who knew how he taught and how he lived, to feel anything but reverence for the mighty Prophet, one of the great messengers of the Supreme. And although in what I put to you I shall say many things which may be familiar to many, yet I myself feel, whenever I reread them, a new way of admiration, a new sense of reverence for that mighty Arabian teacher.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  13. fed up american

    If other Americans are as fed up with this as me, then we should make it known. This is truely the worst evil to prey on society since the beginning of time. We try as parents to protect our kids. Its an instinct, the instinct even kicks in to protect other helpless innocent children (if yours works right). The only way to protect our children, and all children from this evil is to remove the perpetrators from existence. There is no hope for these hard core molesters of children. They should get life in prison(general poplulation) and if for some strange reason they manage to get out and do it again, then it should be the death penalty. It would prevent them from doing it again, maybe to your kids or mine, and it would make them think twice about doing it in the first place. This applies to EVERYONE, proiest or not. But it is always worse when the perpatrator is a person in a position of athority over kids who are supposed to protect them. It is a discusting evil, imagin if it happend to your child, over and over in the dark and they were crying out to you and you were not helping them. It would ruin them for life.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  14. The Jackdaw

    Religion is poison.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  15. DenverGrl

    I would like to know how many of the children "Father" Murphy committed suicide because of the emotional damage done to them by this man. Not to mention the torment that the victims have lived in for decades. The victims deserve justice. NOW! Period.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  16. Argi

    BENIIDICT NEEDS TO GO! AND SO DO THE OTHER ABUSERS. NOTHING BUT A BUNCH OF HIPOCRITS!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
  17. Greggo

    "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea." Matthew 18:6.
    I strongly believe this man is facing a trial in a court far superior to our flawed human courts or vatican tribunals. The way this was handled by the vatican and even law enforcement was a tragic farce! Luckily though, someone was paying attention to this snake's every deceptive and disgusting action! And, after his death, he will have had the monumentous task of defending his actions to our Lord. I have a feeling things didn't go in his favor!!! Good luck to Kohut! I hope the lawsuit goes well and this serves as a wake-up call to the vatican!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  18. peacelover

    Christians and Muslims both believe in Jesus, love him, and honor him. They are, however, divided over the question of his divinity.
    Fortunately, this difference can be resolved if we refer the question to both the Bible and the Qur'an, because, both the Bible and the Qur'an teach that Jesus is not God.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  19. camperman1

    Finding a true religion and following the ways of Jesus Christ is a life time pursuit. I have always thought the ways of the Catholic Church leave a lot to be desired, and are way different from the ways taught by Jesus. Why all the pomp and ceremony, why all the heirarchy in the Catholic church, why can a Catholic commit a sin today, and confess their error in a Confessional cubicle, and think it's all OK to re-commit that sin tomorrow? Why do people think the Pope is the head of the church, and above or equal to Jesus and God Almighty? Why does the Catholic Church have such a high opinion of itself? There are thousands of other wonderful religions in the world with very special people who belong to them. The Catholic church needs to have a complete "cleaning out" and re-think what Christianity is. As someone as said already, if just a small part of the enormous amount of money spent on Catholic churches around the world, was redistributed to those millions in the world who are dying from starvation, the world would be a much better place and people would come to respect Christianity. God will have a hard time forgiving Father Murphy and any of the other sinful priests out there who think they are above God's rage. My advice to any Catholic, is either change religions, and quickly or do something NOW to change they way the Catholic Church operates. God bless you if you take this step!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  20. peacelover

    Imagine ….. A world where we focus more on our similarities and less on our differences ….. A world where differences of religion, race and caste are not the reason for injustice …. A world where we can live justly and not oppress one another. What can lead to such a utopian society? Aren’t our petty differences the root cause for most of the problems in the world?

    September 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
    • bakergc

      @ peachelover

      No need to imagine...It's called heaven buddy . You might want to look into it.

      September 23, 2010 at 1:53 pm |
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About this blog

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.