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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. Jerry

    Pedophiles find positions in society that have authority over children to carry out their dastardly deeds. No organization is free form this type of individual unless there are safe checks to determine they are within the group. The Catholic Church, because of it's self-serving position, tried in vain to help these people. They try as well to help priests with alcoholism and other addictions by sending them off to places for rehab. Then they were put back into a parish or church and told to move on. That is because the Catholic Church has kept the lineage of men only as priests in the realm of their existence. They failed to recognize the incurable illness that is pedophilia and continued to "employ" these people in their organization. Now with all the lawsuits they have come to the conclusion that it is not profitable to keep these type of people around. In fact, the Vatican decided that having women as priests in their organization as bad as having a pedophile as a priest. I have yet to fathom the logic of these people who run this organization and wonder how people can follow their "Pretzel logic" and call it a Christian religion.

    September 23, 2010 at 5:05 pm |
  2. Terry

    God took the life if that sorry excuse so he can take the matter into his own hand. He had let the sicko live long in relative to his crime so people had a chance to seek justice here. Well Catholic church obeviously fail. And Showed the whole world how much "Honor" means to them.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:56 pm |
  3. Byrd

    Why, praytell, is one of my earlier comments awaiting moderation? Do you have a catholic priest sitting there who objects? Or is this not truly an open forum?

    September 23, 2010 at 4:55 pm |
  4. Critic

    It seems that if a man has a propensity towards molesting children, he should become a priest so that he can do what he wants with whomever he wants, and not be punished. The Catholic Church is sending the message that the best way to avoid accountability for sin is to become a priest.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:54 pm |
  5. lorenzo

    there is a hell!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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

    The world will be more peaceful when religion fades away.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:51 pm |
  7. NoDoubt

    I have always heard of these things happening (I am baptized but not practicing Catholic) but never have I read something so horrible- to take advantage of children is horrible enough but deaf children, and the Pope just sweeped it under the rug... this is why I don't trust organized religion. Because it was created by human beings with an agenda.
    I can't get over that picture of him as a boy with his dog. I can't stop crying.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:50 pm |
  8. James from Indianapolis, IN

    I'm not against any God, I'm against a greedy, power hungry, disgrace to humanity. The piece of crap pope should be executed for being an accomplice to all the thousands of kids abused or murdered by the catholic organization. He could have done something to help stop but instead cared more about money and greed and power. We can all thank the catholic organization for the decline in Christian believers. The only good pope is a dead pope.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:49 pm |
  9. Byrd

    I hope somebody does find this "god" someday and lets us all know where it resides. Because when I do find out, I'm going to take it on a ride through history. And then I'm going to kill it. Dead.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:47 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Byrd,

      It isn’t God you should be angry at, it is satan. If people weren’t so careless with their freewill we wouldn’t have all this pain; but people bring it on themselves…it is not God’s fault just because He gave us the gift of freewill; people use it to follow satan into sin.

      September 24, 2010 at 8:04 pm |
  10. Jeff

    One thing. He is the head of a city state that the US has diplomatic ties to. Hens Diplomatic immunity applys so this is a waste of the court systems time.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:42 pm |
  11. sk

    let the victims find justice and healing after the torture they endured. Its time for the Vatican to acknowledge their fault and not give excuses. If anything they were the self appointed authority on the subject of compassion, justice, faith, morality.. they cant refuse to take responsibility for their mistakes....

    Good for the victims to finally have their say..

    September 23, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  12. AKR

    This is just sickening. Mr. Kouht, you and the others who came forward show incredible courage and I hope you get the peace and closure that you deserve. Although it can't take away your traumatic experiences, you have helped bring this issue to light and may have helped other people as well. Good luck.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:35 pm |
  13. Disgusted

    These priests should be prosecuted and locked up.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:30 pm |
  14. nolongeracatholic

    When my mother went to our parish priest and told him my father was molesting me, the concensus was that I must have been doing something to entice him. They made it my fault. I was a child! My father taught Catechism, and he was held blameless. I was 33 before I connected with the fact that it was NOT MY FAULT. These perps and their cronies should be strung up by their curly short ones. And shame on this pius (yeah, right) man who sits himself at the right hand of the Father. He has no business there.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Nolongeracatholic,

      I am so sorry to hear your story; how sad and painful to have pedophilia right in your own home where you should be safe. It seems that when we look back that many years we see what our society and culture were like when it came to abuses within the family. There were no safe havens or phone numbers to call. Your story is particularly horrific because your father was teaching the faith to children; It makes one wonder if you were the only victim as there could have been others also.
      Your mother probably would have received horrendous punishment if your father even knew that she tried to get help for you…I am just so sad that the priest wasn’t educated into what steps to take to protect you but who was? Many children suffered silently; I am so sorry you were one of them….
      We know that today some progress has been made in ways to protect families under abuse. But it was something never talked about back then.
      I remember when school teachers were made aware of ‘signs’ to look for and were given mandates pertaining to it. Some of these families moved quite often so as to hide their crimes perpetrated on their own children after the mandates came out. But we believe that if a family was being investigated, their history followed them and children were removed from the families.
      On these blogs we hear the horrific stories and wonder much about the victims and how their lives turned out…..

      September 24, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
  15. Rammy

    The problem is with the fundamentals of Catholicism. All priests are gays.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:24 pm |
  16. George Waugh

    Many public officials were also involved with the cover-up and that is how these crimes were perpetuated. There needs to be a much more transparent system of justice where all parties can be made accountable. People in vulnerable situations should be informed of their rights and also periodically questioned about their safety, etc. No one in a free and democratic society should be above legitimate accountability. Since justice is supposed to begin at the house of God then justice should be addressed in each of these situations including prosecuting any who aided by cover-up or not reporting these crimes.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:20 pm |
  17. Disgusted

    The Catholic Church should be utterly ashamed. What angers me as much as the horrific abuse at the hands of Murphy is statement such as "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." Tragic? Tragic? That's the best you can come up with? How about absolutely intolerable??? How about Demonic?
    And this: "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.” " may have been different? May? It should definitetly be different! It's time for the Catholic Church to do something about this. Not only should these priests be investigated, defrocked, but also humiliated in court and locked up regradless of age or health. Father Murphy is burning in hell. I hope that he is suffering unimaginable pain.

    September 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  18. cbs

    If only there was a hell for these "sinners" to burn in for all of eternity...

    September 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  19. i agree

    priest should be dug uot of hias grave then shoot his skull then bury him again .

    September 23, 2010 at 4:13 pm |
  20. Bob Dorn

    This is one of the saddest days of my life! To found out that my mentor and the best teacher I ever had in life was abused by Father Murphy! Mr. Terry Kohut was a great teacher and mentor to hundreds of deaf children and sign language students. Terry- I am sorry for your pain and I thank you for being an outstanding teacher/mentor.
    Bob Dorn

    September 23, 2010 at 4:10 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.