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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. Run4hilS

    Nero was tagged as being the first antichrist by the early Christian movement. This doesn't prove that Nero is the beast described in Revelations. Good to see that you are using Wiki as your source for credible information lol. I'm not sure about the rapture but you're correct – He will not come as a child but as our Lord Jesus ! Have faith David Johnson there is time for you to change yet.

    September 24, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  2. MIKE

    I am a victim of father eleuterio ramos from orange county Calif. from 30 yrs ago and this past year after seeing an old class picture from the school and church ( I H M ) I went to brought out some repressed memories that brought anger sickness disgust embarrassment.It was so bad I ruined my marriage lost my job secluded myself from the world. I learned from an article when I punched up eleuterio ramos and it came up with the county king of pedophiles I fell to the floor and got sick. It was going on how the bishops knew of his behavior and instead of turning him in they kept moving him from church to church harming more innocent kids like myself.MAY THEY ALL BURN IN HELL

    September 24, 2010 at 6:15 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      MIKE,
      If there are any pedophiles reading these posts, see the damage you do with your sickness….get help….turn yourself in so you never do it again.

      September 25, 2010 at 10:21 pm |
  3. Ken

    Petel2 – You are part of the cover up by hiding abusive priests. Not what you claim is it? Go away, you don't help anyone with your hateful rhetoric.

    September 24, 2010 at 5:50 pm |
  4. Ken

    Pete – You try to point fingers at anyone else that may disagree with your vile comentary. Your refusal to name anyone tells people that you just don't have any to say. If you do know something, then you're part of the cover up yourself.
    You're just a lot of hot air. You're part of the problem your'self. Go away Pete.

    September 24, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  5. Ken

    Petel2 – You try to point fingers at anyone else that may disagree with your vile comentary. Your refusal to name anyone tells people that you just don't have any to say. If you do know something, then you're part of the cover up yourself.
    You're just a lot of hot air. You're part of the problem your'self. Go away Pete.

    September 24, 2010 at 5:42 pm |
  6. jim

    Hmmmm, are my posts being rejected because I disagree with CNN. This is a replay of the NY Times anti-Pope smear job
    of a few months ago. The real culprit here is Archbishop Weakland who knew about things for 20 years and did nothing.
    He is the same Archbishop who was guilty of using 450K in diocesan funds to pay hush money to his former male lover
    who was blackmailing him.

    A much more balanced presentation of the facts can be found on Our Sunday Visitor

    September 24, 2010 at 5:35 pm |
    • Kate

      @jim

      No, it's more likely they're being rejected because the bad word filter is crap – search for Reality's post on the subject (it's about the only post he makes that's worth reading)

      Just pointin'

      September 24, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
  7. Ken

    Petel2 – Your refusal to name anyone tells people that you just don't have any to say. If you do know something, then you're part of the cover up yourself. So you're just part of the hater crowd that gets on here and spews your hate and venom but really don't add much to the conversation. But you try to point fingers at anyone else that may disagree with your vile comentary.
    You're just a lot of hot air. You're part of the problem your'self. Go away

    September 24, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
  8. Andysault

    I was baptized Catholic, am not practicing, but believe I am truly what a Christian should be. I am so releaved that this subject has finally been traced back to the Vatican. The Vatican should be disbanded, torn to shreds. They have made, and still make the wrong choices and do not interpret the bible correctly. Priests should be able to be married, should be allowed to be gay, should be allowed to be female; in my opinion this probably would have prevented many of the otrocities that have occured in the Catholic Church towards children and others. I am realistic, I know there are bad husbands, gays, and women in this world however occurances such as these would probably be a huge percentage less than they are now. These abuses have only come to the public light in the last 20 or so years, and the Vatican has not made one move to the suggestions of it's Catholic citizens over these years to make changes as to who qualifies to be a priest. My wish is to see the Vatican abolished. I don't wish for much do I.........ha ha. Good luck to you Mr. Kohut, and may God be with you through this necessary fight!!!!

    September 24, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  9. Tony

    Why didn't this moron go to the police? WHy didn't this moron tell his parents or friends or family? What took this idiot so long to tell his story? Why isn't he suing his parents? Why isn't he suing himself for not telling anyone? This guy should go to jail for stupidity.

    September 24, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
    • naanaa

      Tony, at this moment and in this forum, you're the only idiot. NOt an innocent deaf child who was abused. You're a complete moron.

      September 24, 2010 at 9:36 pm |
  10. Susan

    Everyone who knew of ths abuse is equally guilty. Shame on all of you. I'm sure this behavior still persists and again nothing is being done. I'm sorry doesn't cut it. I hope more and more lawsuits will come and those abused can have a lit bit of peace.

    September 24, 2010 at 11:11 am |
  11. cassie

    Apparently you have removed my comment of yesterday? I will speak up in defense of the Catholic Church;, NOT IN DEFENSE OF THAT PRIEST. The Church is guilty of thinking that therapy might cure this evil. We now know that it cannot. The church is now attempting to screen out all persons who might have this malady. It is also attempting to compensate all victims even some people who may not be but simply trying to cash in on the class action. The Church is also about forgiveness, and this policy will not change. On the plus side, the Church has helped so many persons in poverty, disease, and despondency all around the world. Through Catholic Charities and St. Vincent de Pol, millions of people are helped every day. There are many devoted Catholics who perform works of charity. The greatest art, and much of the most beautiful music ever created were created in honor of God as understood through the teachings of the Church. The beloved Saints, for example St. Frances, have come forth to lead and inspire humanity.

    The sickness of pedophilia is one which permeates the entire society and must be controlled if not destroyed. But it is not the sole sickness of the Catholic Church. For CNN to plan a program on this man's tragedy will probably hurt him as much as his original abuse.

    September 24, 2010 at 10:06 am |
  12. JT

    Per the terms of service on this site it says: "Comments are not pre-screened before they post.". Then why is my post awaiting some moderator to review? Does anyone have a list of words that are forbidden? I didn't curse and other posts here are far more pushing it than I.

    September 24, 2010 at 10:06 am |
    • Kate

      @JT

      Of all the regulars, Reality is the most likely to have a list of probable words, but since it's not laid out on a website for them to casually copy and paste it's unlikely to ever get posted here (or anywhere else for that matter).

      The reason posts that don't contain obviously bad words get snagged for moderation on posting is because when CNN configured the filter, some bright spark forgot to add spaces before and after each word on the list, leading to what's known by most netizens as "The Scunthorpe Problem" (Wikipedia has a rather nice if brief explanation).

      Don;t take it personal, CNN is still trying to figure out what blogs do yet. Give them time to learn it 🙂

      Just educatin'

      September 24, 2010 at 10:22 am |
  13. Viel

    Good for you CNN....nice job. Now to have the pope retire...............if he can.

    September 24, 2010 at 10:05 am |
  14. Hackman

    The bottom line is this; This abuse has been going on for at least 50 years that i know of. It has been and continues to be covered up while thousands of boys {and girls} are abused and lives are ruined. The offending priests were always wisked away to another parish to only do it again. The amazing thing is, this is a religion we are taking about, and they continue to try and hide these acts. Years ago the church was all powerfull and people were afraid to even discuss this matter. Today it's different, the fear is gone. It's time for law enforcment to step in take charge and prosecute the priests commiting these crimes and those covering them up. You or I could not get away with these awful crimes, why has the church been allowed to get away with this for so many years? Sad indeed....

    September 24, 2010 at 9:55 am |
  15. Ken

    Petel2- You just bluff and bluster about the abuse being hidden and kept away. But yet you do just that. You are part of the problem yourself. Go away, you are of no use. You're just one in the crowd of haters.

    September 24, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  16. Doubletalk

    Is this another attempt to bury your head in the sand? Are you actually DEFENDING this sick SOB?

    CatholicMom

    If one is being accused of a crime and they are dead and cannot defend themselves....that is one thing....if one is being named a saint who would want to defend against that? We are all called to be saints.

    September 24, 2010 at 8:06 am |
  17. @CatholicMom

    I am curious as to why you have not addressed Kates 2 questions? Mayby you met your match?

    I am also wonderin if you think the Pope is right in keeping silence? Don't you think the its time that the church allows priests to get married? You know the rule they follow is man made..the one about the priest being married to the Church? Did you know Peter was married?
    You seem to condone the phedophiles by saying that married or not, anyone can be one....so why not a priest? Do you really believe that a priest with henious sin can stand in for God?
    Don't you think its time, that the Magesterium and Cathechism be re-examined, so the RCC can't hide behind them? What about the Infalliblity of your clergy?
    Why is it you do not accept that all people can come to God, and not just the Catholic Church? (Which was hijacked btw) The Popes decided to pick it up and run with it....just like a cult,huh?j

    September 24, 2010 at 7:56 am |
  18. john laperuta

    This is a terrible tragedy that has really hurt the Church and defiled the priesthood.Those of you who say that it's too bad the priest died should know that this priest has been judged by God and is most likely in a place where no earthly justice can compare.I'd like to think that the church dropped the ball in the handling of such cases due to both the shock of the situation and the inexperiance on how to handle it.Jesus said HE will remove the weeds from the wheat in reference to His church and I believe we are seeing the purification taking place now as the weeds are being weeded out.However I hope and pray that people will not tarnish all priests with their judgements...most priests are good and Holy and in need of our support and prayers.Only God knows what brings someone to do such harm to another..only God can be their true judge.Remember as Christ was being crucified..He said..Forgive them Father for they know not what they do.If Christ who is God forgave those who killed Him(of which we are all guilty through our sins).Then who are we to condemn and not forgive.Yes the church made terrible decisions but lets be thankful now that it is trying to make amends and doing all it can to prevent such things from ever happening again.Pray for priests so that they won't fall..and don't let the mainstream media that is bent on attacking the church and is oftenly openly biased against it easily influence you.Many times facts are skewed,lies are told and half truths given.Leave it in Gods Hands for He is already acting.

    September 24, 2010 at 7:16 am |
  19. Captmorgan72

    This story is not surprising. I have no sympathy for " sheep". Why would anyone allow someone else to abuse them in such a matter? The priest tells the kid to drop his pants and he does it without question? Just because he is a priest and he felt he had to obey him? Well, if you are going to be that stupid, I guess this is the kind of things that will happen. The priest was obviously a pedophile and knowing that there are so many stupid people out there that think priests are practically angels in human form, he took advantage of it. As far as the Catholic church covering this up, well of course they would, they are protecting their good image. That was sarcasm in case you didn't know.

    September 24, 2010 at 7:04 am |
  20. David Werling

    Sacrilegious bigots will burn in hell.

    September 24, 2010 at 6:52 am |
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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.