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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. Patricia S. Dumas

    Pompous ones like CatholicMom always have to get on their high horses about religious issues– if you are against a woman's right to choose, then that's your belief– but, it's the law, and thankfully, religion doesn't play a darn part in that. But, it's ok that your priests molest boys? Father Murphy molested over 200 innocent handicapped boys. OVER 200! Where's your moral outrage now? I have seen goodness in churches, but I have to say the Catholics are the worst phonies there are. The worst.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  2. cassie

    I've had time to reflect on CNN putting on this program. I think it's a very cruel thing to do. If any of the victims appear on it it will only serve to revive their pain. Meanwhile, there is one lawyer who is bringing all of these suits. And now he thinks he has the big prise, the Pope. But I question his motives. Somewhere I read he is getting a big cut of any damages awarded. he is getting rich on other people's pain. And CNN is an accomplice in this endeavor. We all know about these cases and what has been done about them and what is being done currently. To put these people before the camera seems a cruel way to make a sensationalistic story.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
    • Mikchik2

      Cassie, you seemed to have missed the point here. It is not about CNN trying to get publicity or the lawyers just trying to get money, it is about bringing AWARENESS to the public about a panedemic in our society, a heinous crime against children. It is up to the victims now to speak out and make society aware of how they suffer and why they have remained silent. It is comments/opinions like so many I read here that it understandable why more don't speak out. Lawyers are lawyers for a reason, to bring about justice, but they also don't work for free. They are not the criminals, the pedophiles are and whoever is protecting them. They are the ones who should be held accountable. I would like to see us keep the focus there.

      September 25, 2010 at 10:40 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Mikchik2,

      I hope your theory is correct and more victims of pedophilia will find the courage to come forward and name their perpetrators no matter who they are. This is the good that I can see coming out of this….

      September 26, 2010 at 10:03 am |
  3. james

    NOW HEAR THIS.....IM GOING TO SUE THEE

    September 25, 2010 at 7:51 pm |
  4. gary

    All these Evil genious' hiding right infront of us, state, senate, pres, wow i love america, its so pure

    September 25, 2010 at 7:49 pm |
  5. Dana

    This is only a story because CNN is having a special on it. This man, however horrible his abuses were, cannot sue the Pope. There's no court that would hear it. But it's a story CNN would definitely pay for.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
  6. Dana

    This story seems to be a bit self-serving on the part of CNN, since I doubt this lawsuit is even legitimate. I think it's terrible what this poor guy went through, but this appears to be a publicity stunt, because there's no court in which to file this where the Pope has to respond. And I'm sure he won't. Interesting no one else is reporting on it- but since CNN is running a special, that makes it news here. I wonder what CNN paid Mr. Kohut for the story. It surely is a sensational one.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  7. Yohan

    What about the masons? WHAT ABOUT THE MASONS!!!

    September 25, 2010 at 7:31 pm |
  8. DIANE

    Here's hoping Nazinger ends up in hell where he belongs.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  9. Nancy

    Oh Father!! You may have gone to your grave as a priest, but I'd bet my last breath you ain't in heaven!! What goes around, comes around!! And you've got some heavy dues to pay!! You will never get the blood off your hands!!

    September 25, 2010 at 7:24 pm |
  10. LMD

    All I can say to this article and what it conveys is that NO ONE should trust any member of any faiths clergy. They are just men,human and mortal as is the rest of the world.Protecting children,should be a priority,high above animals(and yes animals need protection too)as it seems outrage happens more when an animal is hurt ,than when a child is,and both are voiceless when it comes to abuse.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:23 pm |
  11. LMD

    All I can say to this article and what it conveys is that NOONE should trust any member of any faiths clergy. They are just men,human and mortal as is the rest of the world.Protecting children,should be a priority,high above animals(and yes animals need protection too)as it seems outrage happens more when an animal is hurt ,than when a child is,and both are voiceless when it comes to abuse.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      LMD,
      You are right about animals and children….people go to great lengths to protect animals but pass laws to kill babies in the womb.

      September 26, 2010 at 9:50 am |
  12. Ivory123us

    It's very sad that these horrendus event happen to so many beautiful and unique children, but they survived. Murphy will face Yaway at said time and then God will deal with this man His way. I pity him.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:18 pm |
  13. Paul

    Ahhh....sharia law. What, these are Catholics?

    September 25, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
  14. Me

    I was "done" with the Catholic church 30+ years ago when they tried to tell me how much money I needed to give them each week. The Catholic religiion is a joke and the priests are nothing but criminals that should be locked up and/or persecuted (death penalty.) Weren't they afraid to "rot in hell" for their sins? What a bunch of hypocrits. There is no "God" people. All you idiots going to church every week, handing over your hard earned money, your children to be abused... Read Chariots of the Gods. The "Gods" were aliens... aliens that were seen by people all over the world. There are ancient drawings all over the world, all similar. Stop wasting your time and money in church. Keep your children away from priests and, if you want to give your money away, give it to a good charity.

    September 25, 2010 at 7:11 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Me,
      It is easy to see what your god is; you mentioned its name at least 4 times in your short post. Your name says it all.

      September 26, 2010 at 9:38 am |
  15. Paul

    Ahhh...sharia law. Oh, these are Catholics?

    September 25, 2010 at 7:02 pm |
  16. Paul

    Ahhh....sharia law. Oh, sorry, these are Catholics?

    September 25, 2010 at 6:58 pm |
  17. Joan Mac

    As a devout Catholic, if this story proves true, the Pope needs to go. St. Faustina states in her diary that we choose to live under God's law of love or His law of justice. If the truth reveals that Ratzinger made a choice to do nothing and align with a monster he must be dismissed. It's one thing to dismiss one or two claims during that innocent time, but repeated claims over many years is unforgiveable.

    September 25, 2010 at 6:54 pm |
  18. Petel2

    As most can see, we need proof in courts – not here. Here, does nothing and only promotes more catholics bickering and calling victims liars.
    ...
    Please help us demand laws change as they did in Californian. In New York, there are over 500 catholic clergy who molested children, that law enforcement don't know about, and the catholics will call us liars. In California, not only did we expose the truth but courts also exposed another 300 child molesting priests that otherwise would be around YOUR children.
    ..
    (Please ignore Father Ken above, he's a deflector who posts in an effort to discredit victims.)

    September 25, 2010 at 6:51 pm |
  19. DC678

    Why would anyone remain in the Catholic Church? This is the same wonderful organization that brought the world the Crusades, the Inquisition, indulgences and looked the other way while the Germans were slaughtering millions. The Church also encourages its members, including the poor people of the world, to avoid birth control and to continue having many babies so there will be more Catholics, despite the poverty in which they must live.
    Finally, people are learning about the centuries of rampant pedophilia and its cover up in the name of God? I bet God is sick to his stomach. What is puzzling is why people stay with this rotten organization when there are so many other places to worship God. I guess they have been so brainwashed they can not see the evil of the Catholic Church.

    September 25, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  20. ChipH

    Here is the REAL pedophilia, the Republican Contract on America 2, raping all our kids and grandkids:
    http://www.wordle.net/show/wrdl/2469693/Republican_Contract_on_Americans_2
    A computer program analyzed their bogus proposal for key words, and there they are, on the right:
    "Make Laws Much Powers Purpose Advance Governing" – The Gay Old People (GOP) Pedophiles, Ladies and Gentlemen

    September 25, 2010 at 6:43 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.