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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. Anon

    Disgusting religion..

    September 23, 2010 at 1:00 pm |
  2. Mark

    The whole being obedient to a "government church" does comply with Christianity I learned.

    Teach yourself about Christianity!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
  3. wh4t

    The devil is in your house wearing zuchettos and you believe what ever he says.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  4. RIPGOP

    Well, this stuff is written in prophesy. Brace yourselves, things are going to hit the fan in all spectrums of news. I love God and I leave matters like this to him to judge.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
  5. Reality999

    Stop crying its just an ID so what. STOP TAKING IT UP THE ASS!!!!!!!!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  6. Charlotte

    I dont trust any of the priests and I cant belive they do bad things to boys and girls. I was surprise pope Benedict keep himself long time not right. make me sad and sick hearing bad stories .

    September 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  7. Teresa

    I do ot know what happen to the last posting that I sent, but here it goes again.

    Dion, you are correct, Jesus is about to return and very soon, things are getting to bad and sickly in this world. The people who are suppose to represent Jesus and does these terrible things will be held highly accounable. Including Mr. Murphy whom has already passed. These priest are not fooling anyone. For those who do not believe in Jesus, the bible states the when he returns every knee will bow and every tongue will confess the he is Lord whether you want to or not. Jesus sees everything. For the people that says that if there was a God, these things would not happen. Remember, we are born sinners. That is why Jesus had to die for us to make things right, all we have to do is believe in him. Jesus has give us free will, but we are so blinded that we prefer to sin. But you know what, even though we do not want to pray to him in our schools and are trying to take in God We Trust off the dollar bills and we are accepting gay marriages, he still loves us dearly. He sees everything, nothing goes unnoticed we all will be held accoutable.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  8. Shrike

    MONEY Plain and simple. That's all these people want. If it was an affront, they would have spoken up MUCH sooner. Hope they all burn a miserable death over and over for eternity in their own special HELL!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:56 pm |
  9. LuciousLB

    Wow, Deaf Children's Pleas falling on the Deaf Ears of the Vatican?? I'll bet Father Murphy's going to be sent back down here for a taste of his own medicine.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:55 pm |
  10. RockyRooster

    The pope must come out and say that the church is fully guilty for allowing this to go on and that the victims should choose what the appropriate punishment and compensation be. Anything else and it would be a lie and therefore this is definetely not the church of Jesus Christ, but of the devil.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  11. legalforce

    A wise man once said that every evil done by man to,shall certainly be redressed,if not now then later.If not by man,then certainly by God.I personly grew up by the care of my late elder brother,back then he use to take us to a spiritual church,where i now would not say if they either hypnotise him,or simply brainwash him to believe their evil prohecies about me having a stubborn spirit and all to be done to exorcise me was to beat me,flog me in such an awful way that my back bleeds!As a kid i know nothing to do then as He was the bread winner of the family and no one can challenge him.And his shallow mind couldn't challenge those prophecies either!All that was wrong with me then was that of a child prodigy,but those abuse happened and maybe contributed to me being some kind of a violent person at latter part of my life.But i grew over it,even forgave him but those false prophets i leave in the hands of retribution as now in my adult life i know not their way about!Many people may not believe me or may make fun of this post,but it is my true life experience.More experience has thaught me that the difference between man and man is opportunity!And if chance permits,every man has the power to attend to any height his soul desires!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  12. Venice

    Everyone seems to have overlooked that the POLICE also did not help these young men. I am a Catholic and I am ashamed of how my church has handled this situation. But please remember that the police should have arrested him. Instead, they brought them back to the school.

    It's not just Catholic priests that do this, either. It's an abuse of power. Pedophiles figure out ways to be around children in positions of authority and trust.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  13. bjob

    Religion is one big lie.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
  14. Chicagoatty

    Missing from the story is the simple but critical fact that nothing that Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict) did or failed to do caused or allowed the abuse of Mr. Kohut or the other deaf students. By the time the case reached Rome, all of the damage had been done, and the priest was already removed from all ministry. The only issue was a purey religious issue: whether the priest should have an ecclesiastical tribunal under Church law. That is nobody's business but the Church's. A far more important question is why, after receiving direct allegations, PUBLIC AUTHORITIES in Wisconsin (i.e., the police) failed to take aciton under secular law, at a time when it really would have mattered – before some of these poor boys were abused. You don't see the ravenous plaintiffs' bar suing them, do you?

    September 23, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • cassie

      At last, a voice of reason. Yes, indeed, why did the civil authorities, for example a child protective agency, not go and investigate the orphanage at the time. No one seems to be focusing on that aspect. They are charged with the duty of protecting children from abuse.

      September 24, 2010 at 9:50 am |
    • cassie

      At last, a voice of reason. Yes, indeed, why did the civil authorities, for example a child protective agency, not go and investigate the orphanage at the time. No one seems to be focusing on that aspect. They are charged with the duty of protecting children from abuse. This is not a duplicate comment. I haven't addressed this before.

      September 24, 2010 at 9:51 am |
  15. Mark

    I agree the Priest should not be put under investigation.

    They should be taken out back and SHOT in the head for sub coming to evil.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  16. pet.e

    the catholic church is a breeding ground for pedophiles. Most of them go into the church so they can molest children and have the church behind them, there is no repercussions. I blame the church. Priests should be allowed to marry and have children. Who says you can't love god and have a family also. This was done by the catholic church so that they would not have to support a priest and his family. Good old fashion greed. It's a disgrace now and always has been because the church knew all about these instances and never said anything. And these people think they will see heaven, I think not.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      pet.e,
      You would have pedophiles marry and have children....so they can abuse their own children? There are plenty who do that already....along with uncles, grandpas, and so on.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:51 pm |
  17. Eric

    This is exactly what is wrong with religous groups today. The message of God and Jesus is and was not anything close to what relgion has become. When did Jesus wear lavish costumes with gold? When did Jesus put himself above other people? When did Jesus live in a castle protected by security? The answers are he didn’t. He preached against all of that. He warned about worshiping statues, but go into any catholic church and you will a statue of Mary, Joesph, and Jesus on a cross all of which people knee before and pray too. I believe in God but I believe in livingy life and modeling after Chirst and he would have never committed such horrible crimes and certainly never would have let Father Murphy remain in contact with young children. When are we all going to learn that are society is becoming very close in comparison to the same empire, Romans, the put Jesus on the cross to start with. We need to further realize that it is relgion, oraganized, that is the true evil in this world.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  18. Carol J

    Do you know there have other big problem about Pope that lot people dont know about: That what Bible of Daniel and Revealation said exactly what happened I m not surprised I knew that it will happened.
    Well, Too Bad for Roman Catholic Church will be justice in Big Day and you know that they did changed Sabbath to Sunday because they are powerful to do it to defy God's Commandment Look at Exodus 20:8 said (Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. :9 Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work: :10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God in it thou shalt not do any work, thou nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: :11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
    Now you see I knew not for Jesus's raised on Sunday to worship. Just get victory that Jesus won to get raised alive that Satan are lost! that's all for just victory but not change to Sunday! Pope did changed from Sabbath to Sunday as seventh day to first day! No wonder Jewish alway keep worship on Sabbaths for years but of course Jewish dont beleive Jesus is God's son that's all. Pope did changed it around in 1500.... go look in research in Catholic's history who did changed from Sabbath to Sunday. I m not fool! VERY SAD many people didnt know about this truth for years. Dont even think Jesus mentioned "change from Sabbath to Sunday" by his lip! Pope did it. Remember God is prefection no mistake like "change" mean for better from error or from wrong to right? Of course God is prefection and never change on the Bible on anything period! We should obey God's Commandment to make you happy the reason God protect your hurt by sins. That's simply! Go blame Pope for lies, lies, lies on everything! So SAD for heritage of pope(s) knew and kept defy God not change to right as fellow 10 Commandment! It's very very dangerous to God's eyes! God will give us a Big Justice for who we obey God or Satan! Holy in Jesus's name! Amen!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
    • David Johnson

      There is no god Carol. If there is prove it.

      September 23, 2010 at 3:06 pm |
    • peace2all

      @Carol J

      I see....... yet another example of my 'version' of christianity is the 'right' one..... your 'version' of christianity is the 'wrong' one.

      Carol.... you might consider that they are ALL wrong.......

      Peace......

      September 23, 2010 at 3:09 pm |
  19. Steve

    All you Catholics should stop going to church and giving money to that corrupt organization. After all, its your money that pays for the church to cover this all up. Stop paying the church and watch it disintegrate internally.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  20. fed up american

    i love everything, not really, i guess this is the only soft crap that will be allowed to be posted on here. I will no longer read these blogs, they are not posting everything people are saying so by definition this is not a real picture of what people think

    September 23, 2010 at 12:51 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.