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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. claybigsby

    @Jennifer, the 10% that dont believe dont think that we know everything. That is impossible for man to know everything. Yes I have studied the bible, I had to for theology 101. Its nothing but a book of stories and poems that were written by 30+ different men over the period of 1500 years. you said, "It's blatantly obvious that the vast majority of those who defy Christianity do so do to their OWN shame and guilt and are simply rejecting God due to fear of being rejected by Him." well i will counter by saying that the majority of people who believe christianity do so because of the fear of death. Christianity uses the fear mongering technique and uses it well. why else would you indoctrinate children at such a young age using fear as the primary focus? because a child's mind is so easily manipulated. Im not trying to deny anything to you. you can believe what you want. im just stating my opinion. you said "Pedophiles hiding behind Catholic robes are no different than pedophiles hiding behind a teacher's desk or as a YMCA swim coah." uhhhh yes there is a HUGE difference. they are controlling your faith, not teaching you how to swim.

    Have you ever thought, that maybe, just maybe, everything in this universe is not as cut and dry as good vs evil, right vs. wrong, god or no god. have you ever thought, maybe this persons view could be correct? the answer to all of those questions is no, because you are BRAINWASHED into thinking that your view is the only and correct view. just to let you know, before you go off calling me atheist, cause, you know, its easy to label someone as atheist because they dont believe in your god, i do believe in a higher power. Just not one based around fear and money.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:07 pm |
  2. sammi

    i can't believe the pope didn't do anything about this case. He should have done something then.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:06 pm |
  3. Matthew McCormick

    These comments are wandering off topic. Why when someone is talking about an experience that is their own, people want to interject their own agenda? This is his story as told through his eye's. He doesn't call for pity nor does he wish to discuss anything other than his story. Please take the time to watch the show this weekend. I myself will be featured on the show as well. My abuser was Alvin Campbell. It is my story through my eyes. I'm not calling for anything other than what is right. Accountability!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  4. claybigsby

    @Jennifer, the 10% that dont believe dont think that we know everything. That is impossible for man to know everything. Yes I have studied the bible, I had to for theology 101. Its nothing but a book of stories and poems that were written by 30+ different men over the period of 1500 years. you said, "It's blatantly obvious that the vast majority of those who defy Christianity do so do to their OWN shame and guilt and are simply rejecting God due to fear of being rejected by Him." well i will counter by saying that the majority of people who believe christianity do so because of the fear of death. Christianity uses the fear mongering technique and uses it well. why else would you indoctrinate children at such a young age using fear as the primary focus? because a child's mind is so easily manipulated. Im not trying to deny anything to you. you can believe what you want. im just stating my opinion. you said "Pedophiles hiding behind Catholic robes are no different than pedophiles hiding behind a teacher's desk or as a YMCA swim coah." uhhhh yes there is a HUGE difference. they are controlling your faith, not teaching you how to swim.

    Have you ever thought, that maybe, just maybe, everything in this universe is not as cut and dry as good vs evil, right vs. wrong, god or no god. have you ever thought, maybe this persons view could be correct? the answer to all of those questions is no, because you are BRAINWASHED into thinking that your view is the only and correct view. just to let you know, before you go off calling me atheist, cause, you know, its easy to label someone as atheist because they dont believe in your god, i do believe in a higher power. Just not one based around fear and money.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:01 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Well said. I salute you!

      September 23, 2010 at 2:42 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      claybigsby,

      Some ‘want’ to believe in ‘something’ but they have a fear of losing their money.

      September 24, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
  5. Melody

    remove balls...done

    September 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
    • Dr. Erniepaul Izereckt

      Not only that they should B made 2 eat their Balls & chew them thoroughly indeed!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      September 24, 2010 at 3:30 pm |
  6. Melody

    If the catholic church wants to keep it's rule of celibacy, why not nuder all the priests. Remove their balls. Who needs an erection when your a catholic priest? Rapists and child molesters also need their balls removed. We do it to animals. It's a painless proceeder. What's the problem?

    September 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
    • Kate

      @Melody

      What's the problem? Ummm, the fact it's a painless procedure 😛

      Just sayin'

      September 23, 2010 at 1:51 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Ummm...Then maybe we could start cutting off the hands and feet of people who steal.

      Or stone adulterers.

      Or contemplate paralyzing a healthy man.

      Or allow the family members to slit a girls throat for doing something they consider improper.

      Melody, when you see "Sharia Law" on a ballot, make sure you vote YES. All your wishes could come true.

      I hope you are a Christian or Muslim. I would hate to think you are a freethinker.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
  7. Zaidi

    If you're uncertain about a word's correct spelling, you can highlight that word and have 'Spell Check' correct it for you. If you're going to criticize others, at least do yourself a favor and sound literate when doing it. Of course, this does nothing for bad syntax, which we will save for another day.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  8. A Realist

    Man is older than any religion. Everyones so called God sounds like wishfull thinking to me. Get over it. God didn't create man. Man created religion and gods. When your dead and gone, you are dead and gone. Live life to it's fullest and respect your fellow man.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:44 pm |
  9. sammi

    i can't believe he waited so long to reveal this to everyone.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:43 pm |
    • Kate

      @sammi

      Rape victims have enough problems revealing they were raped, male victims have an even harder time of it, and considering how the authorities reacted to the complaints at the time, can you blame him and others for staying silent for so long?

      Remember, this is also the organization that threatened the victims with their immortal soul if they spoke out publicly. Don't even hint at suggesting the victims bear any blame in this.

      Just notin'

      September 23, 2010 at 1:50 pm |
    • fofo

      very good answer kate.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:09 pm |
    • David Johnson

      @Kate

      You said, "Remember, this is also the organization that threatened the victims with their immortal soul if they spoke out publicly.

      To me, this is the most heinous part of this crime. To the believers, this would be a very real, very scary threat. This is a terrible abuse of power. I don't have the words, to describe how this angers me.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:48 pm |
  10. Petel2

    Please read
    ..
    I was sodomized from ages 8 to 10, once gang sodomized by 4 priests, one a bishop today – All in New York State.
    Each and every New York Senator and those in the assembly have been told. They refuse to pass laws that would expose the truth. On senator stated, on record no less, "No one will harm my church". Imagine that!
    ..
    We need the help of fellow citizens to expose this churches wrong doings. They have too much power and money, victims and families are at a loss. In NY state I spoke with an older woman whose son committed suicide with a letter left behind of the abuse. Severe childhood trauma causes a physical change in the brain development of a child. These same changes can be seen among those abused and those who have committed suicide. The reason it takes so long for some to come forward is due to the mental illness caused.
    ..
    Just a few years ago, two of those who ssodoomized me held a camp for disadvantaged boys. The FBI and DA could do nothing since statutes of limitations protects the church, the pedo and denies the victim a chance to expose. Our senators and those in the Assembly could have changed this, but opted to side with the RCC's promises of favors.
    ..
    Please pay attention to those you vote for, their religious interests, please help victims expose the truth in New York State. We need everyones help.
    ..
    Thank you for reading.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:39 pm |
  11. Zaidi

    Exonerating a pedophile pretending to be a priest to equating atheist with nazism is merely being consistent with this pope's definition of Catholic church authority.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  12. fofo

    My coworker, a pastor, told me that I will be going to hell just because I don't believe in God and Jesus. He said that no matter what you do, if you only believe in Jesus all your sin will be washed away since Jesus died for our sin.
    How stupid these religious people can be is beyond my comprehension.
    I think the parents of these abused children should also be put on trial for child endangerment. And their defense should be plain stupidity and ignorance.
    I’m just disgusted with all the religions and their stupid followers. Down with all religion!

    September 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  13. Petel2

    I was sodomized from ages 8 to 10, once gang sodomized by 4 priests, one a bishop today – All in New York State.
    Each and every New York Senator and those in the assembly have been told. They refuse to pass laws that would expose the truth. On senator stated, on record no less, "No one will harm my church". Imagine that!
    ..
    We need the help of fellow citizens to expose this churches wrong doings. They have too much power and money, victims and families are at a loss. In NY state I spoke with an older woman whose son committed suicide with a letter left behind of the abuse. Severe childhood trauma causes a physical change in the brain development of a child. These same changes can be seen among those abused and those who have committed suicide. The reason it takes so long for some to come forward is due to the mental illness caused.
    ..
    Just a few years ago, two of those who ssodoomized me held a camp for disadvantaged boys. The FBI and DA could do nothing since statutes of limitations protects the church, the pedo and denies the victim a chance to expose. Our senators and those in the Assembly could have changed this, but opted to side with the RCC's promises of favors.
    ..
    Please pay attention to those you vote for, their religious interests, please help victims expose the truth in New York State. We need everyones help.
    ..
    Thank you for reading.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
    • fofo

      How can anyone help you, when our system of justice runs by only religious people? We have at least 3 justices that are catholic. So far no president has ever dared to nominate an atheist for the Supreme Court. What’s worse is that we have a black president but a secular one. During the Obama campaign most people were more interested about his religious practice than anything else. I guess the religious American have finally accepted that black could have soul too.
      I have a statistic that claims 55% of Americans pray every day and only 9% don’t. That same statistic shows that Americans are in the same both as the 3rd world country when it comes to religion. With this kind of ignorant and stupidity who do you want to rescue children from these religious pedophiles, when parents are willingly entrust their children to these monsters.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:05 pm |
  14. Zaidi

    Exonerating a pedophile pretending to be priest and equating atheism with nazism is consistent with this pope's definition of Catholic church authority.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
  15. Jaycee

    First of all, Raj – you're really misguided. But most of all, this is so tragic. What an abomination! I believe with all my heart that "Father" Murphy is burning in hell as we speak. Everyone who ran the CDF, especially Ratzinger should be excommunicated. And he's the POPE???!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 1:31 pm |
  16. Madge

    Why is it that Catholic Priest get away with molesting children? To me the stiffest punisment known to man kind should be to people who molest children. Whether or not the rapist is catholic or not, they should be skinned alive "starting with thier private part's, Or tie them up Indian style out in the hot sun, pour syrup all over them and then pour a big bucket of fire ants all over them. I can think of many ways to make people pay for hurting children, I despise people who hurt little people who can't defend themselfs.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  17. Angela

    The Catholic Church is an abomination. Relligion is a disease. Make all religioons pay taxes.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  18. Fix_It

    Lynn

    "Yeah. I made a simple, non controversial comment and CNN didn't even put it in the "awating moderation" category. They just deleted it. Why does CNN bother to put such disturbing and controversial articles up for comment when they completely censor readers remarks? I didn't use any bad language either. Obviously they were afraid that my honest thoughts regarding this article were too offensive to the pedophiles so they removed my comment and wasted my time."

    These boards have big technical problems. You post was probably not 'censored' per se - there is an automatic filter that snags 'secret' words... any word with t-it in it, or like doc-ument or other seemingly innocuous words will get flagged - I even got zapped for 'gr-apes'. It is very frustrating... and you would think that CNN could do better.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
  19. alex

    so does this mean NO CATHOLIC CHURCHES near Ground Zero? or within 100 feet of a school?, or we should now harrass anyone found to be Catholic?, should we burn the bible?, should we wait for church to start and vandalize everyone car in the lot?, shouldn't the media stop only showing what happens with the Catholic church and start showing every religions ceremonies when a new head is elected? or my favorite does the Catholic church return all the gold that is in all those churches which was either stolen from the Mayans, who they then made extinct or the illegally mined gold by slaves in Africa? I got some questions.

    September 23, 2010 at 1:25 pm |
  20. Pirogi

    Dear Cardinal Rat,

    Yes, I did terrible things to deaf little boys and others who had already seen their share of tragedy. But com'on! I'm old now! So let's just forget it happened, mm-kay?

    Love,
    Murphy

    September 23, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
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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.