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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. randy

    casterate all priest who molest boys and girls.

    September 23, 2010 at 9:31 pm |
  2. r. blankenship

    if i was molested as a child and the priest was still teaching, i would take matters in my own hands,as an adult. i would stalk him and when the moment was right, he would be casterated, an eye for an eye is my idea of sound juices, that would be very little payback for what he did. and god would forgive me,

    September 23, 2010 at 9:26 pm |
  3. Paul Rediker

    You people are making a very grave mistake.

    You’re venting your frustration and anger on this “soundoff” board instead of making the church really listen.

    This subject is much too important. Everyone should be paying attention to you, especially the Catholic Church. But, unfortunately, they’re not. Believe me, the Catholic Church has a minor damage control program underway. And they know you’ll accept their lip-service.

    If the perpetrators of these crimes were a class or group other than Catholic priests the outcry would ear shattering. World-wide child molestation! By leaders of a religious sect! Outrageous! String them up! Disband the sect! Imprison the leaders that either tolerated or ignored the crimes!

    But because it is Catholic priests you’re faced with the following:

    Non-Catholics are outraged but secretly think you’re idiots for waiting 20 years to grow the balls to say something and, frankly, because it makes them feel better to NOT be one of those idiot Catholics. They’re satisfied to gloat.

    Actual Catholics are too cowardly to speak except under pseudonyms on innocuous boards like this one because of the church’s continual but veiled threat of Excommunication.

    (Excommunication means eternal damnation and the church uses the threat effectively)

    Each of you should copy this entire thread and forward it to each diocese.

    And all of you should take a minute and find (google) their own diocese’s communication pathway and communicate your feelings directly.

    They can’t excommunicate you for suggesting they take this topic seriously.

    Good Luck.

    September 23, 2010 at 8:45 pm |
  4. Friday

    You could not expect victims to report. The church would have to be in on it. Like hospitals and nursing homes are now. They do self reporting, ombudsman, and social services also report. Employees must report any know violence against children.

    September 23, 2010 at 8:34 pm |
  5. Terry

    Oh No this thread is destory pope's reputation. CNN have to block all comment.

    September 23, 2010 at 8:11 pm |
  6. Friday

    I think they do need a major overhaul of the RCC. Maybe let the priests marry and not have a policy of secrecy regarding their pedophiles. Instead, treating them through the legal system of the country the crime occurred in. Their vast amount of monies can be well invested in endowments that can keep giving off of their income, rather than just giving away all their money to the poor in one fell swoop.

    September 23, 2010 at 7:20 pm |
  7. YourAWful

    @DJ Stop! This is not the time to do your God bashing. Have some respect for the victims.

    Hey it's me GOD.....I'm hanging out with all my friends......Jesus, Allah, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Golly Green Giant, Bugs Bunny, and the rest of fictional figures of the human imagination. p.s. Please stop killing each other and raping small children. I DONT EVEN EXSIST!!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
  8. YourAWful

    ok DJ....Knock it off

    We know you love
    bashing God....but this is not the time or place. This is a serious issue..please have some respect for the victims of abuse.
    Save your theatrics for another time.
    Your post is awful!

    GOD

    Hey it's me GOD.....I'm hanging out with all my friends......Jesus, Allah, Santa Claus, Easter Bunny, Golly Green Giant, Bugs Bunny, and the rest of fictional figures of the human imagination. p.s. Please stop killing each other and raping small children. I DONT EVEN EXSIST!!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 7:08 pm |
  9. DestroyCNN

    Bigots should be shipped to Antarctica. Hatred has no place in a Free Nation

    September 23, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
  10. Mahrk

    I hope Deafy takes him to the cleaners.

    September 23, 2010 at 6:52 pm |
  11. Helen

    Pope guilty YES OR NO
    I'm for Yes

    September 23, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  12. Helen

    THE POPE IS GUILTY. You have got of track of the original subject. Did Ratzinger aka The Pope know of this abuse and what did he do about it? Answer

    September 23, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  13. Hmmm

    Name the molesters you know of. Why keep them anonymous? Use the power of the internet so parents can protect their kids.

    September 23, 2010 at 5:59 pm |
  14. Eastern Orthodox

    If you seek the true faith and healing of the ancient church, see orthodoxinfo.com, monachos.net, ancientfaith.com, "The Orthodox Study Bible."

    September 23, 2010 at 5:54 pm |
  15. JL

    I didn’t realize the division of Church & State was not only so the Church would no longer dually govern its people, but also so that the Church can have an advantage and be immune from laws, crimes and government punishment. Which they did already. I thought this was created in the people’s best interest and protection from politics. How ingenious? …well it’s Corrupt. As well as the campaign donations contributed which just turn around to BITE us! As we see in how no one would “believe” or help these boys. Political corruptness and we must correct it ASAP!!!!! Justice must be served in this case! Division of Church & State must stand true. The Church is no different and must be held accountable! I can’t believe this Priest lived out his life in peace and then was Honored at death! Shameful. The Pope should be ashamed of himself for the hand he played in this, HIS very own hand. This priest was very, very wicked. The abusive acts are terrifying and unfathomable. 200 boys! And how he knowingly sought out these innocent boys who were not only vulnerable from their past history that brought them to the school, for help, but also deaf so they could not hear the others being abused as he walked the halls at night. Knowing they were deaf so he could carry out his evil works in quiet. OMG How wicked! An evil atrocity that deserves the ultimate punishment!!!!!!! Oh I believe he placed himself there on purpose, extremely premeditated. I will be paying close attention to hear the outcome!

    September 23, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  16. Hmmm

    For those who have been abused and who do not feel they have a voice...why not use the power of the internet and comment boards like this to list the names of the abusers (assuming you have evidence/proof/record)? Why remain silent?

    September 23, 2010 at 5:48 pm |
  17. JL

    I didn’t realize the division of Church & State was not only so the Church would no longer dually govern its people, but also so that the Church can have an advantage and be immune from laws, crimes and government punishment. Which they did already. I thought this was created in the people’s best interest and protection from politics. How ingenious? …well it’s Corrupt. As well as the campaign donations contributed which just turn around to BITE us! As we see in how no one would “believe” or help these boys. Political corruptness and we must correct it ASAP!!!!! Justice must be served in this case! Division of Church & State must stand true. The Church is no different and must be held accountable! I can’t believe this Priest lived out his life in peace and then was Honored! Shameful. The Pope should be ashamed of himself for the hand he played in this, HIS very own hand. This priest was very, very wicked. The abusive acts are terrifying and unfathomable. 200 boys! And how he knowingly seeked out these innocent boys who were not only vulnerable from their past history that brought them to the school, for help, but also deaf so they could not hear the others being abused as he walked the halls at night. OMG How wicked! An evil atrocity that deserves the ultimate punishment!!!!!!! I will be paying close attention to hear the outcome!

    September 23, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
  18. James

    Simple appalling. What a disgusting and evil criminal organization the Catholic Church is.

    September 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
  19. JN

    CNN picks up where the NY Times left off in the Anderson law firm crusade to get to Vatican money. No more CNN in my channel line up and internet favorites. This is the same story published by NY Tiimes ealier this year on information provided by Anderson law firm.

    September 23, 2010 at 5:32 pm |
  20. mark

    how can this nazi-pope continue to be the face of piety after decades of such heinous indifference? while i am an atheist, i think the church should publicly remove the pope as a good will gesture to those who suffered under his rain of callous–even criminal–indifference.

    September 23, 2010 at 5:06 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.