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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. john

    I don't understand why these people don't sue the police and the local government for not listening to their accusations. Seems to me like authorities in Milwaukee would have been better suited to end this horrible situation while it was occurring rather than an office 5000 miles away some 20 years later...

    September 23, 2010 at 10:48 am |
  2. Dion

    In this day and age, Jesus is soon to return. Yall better wake up and know the word of God for yourselves. These type of evil practices are not new, everywhere, and in every man made religion. Catholicism has many pagan/satanic symbolism and roots and is not based on a true relationship with the one and true living God. If we didnt waste so much time worshipping and idolizing people in the name of religiion and celebrity and whoring after everything material and what feels good, we would be able to see the truth in all things. This so called Priest, ...Eddie Long.. both disgusting and will absolutely burn in hell for what they have done. But we have a responsibility to search for God like we are searching for gold without the mistake of leaving our own salvation into someone else's hands that are made of flesh JUST LIKE YOU. This is a time to wake up and look beyond what your naturla eyes and ears see. The inner demonic spirits of lust comple these people to do things that are not common to man. We wrestle not against flesh and blood but things of the spirit. And if you are fooled to believe that it is more to you than your flesh, you wont be able to comprehend what Im saying. The Koran can't help you put on the whole Armour of God. The holy spirit throught discernment, prayer,and a true understanding of God is what will keep you. Wake up.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:47 am |
    • You take the "fun" out of "fundamental."

      I want some of what you're smoking. ...On second thought, no, no I don't. I can tell by how you express your opinion of religion you are one of those nutbags who is sure, POSITIVE, even, that your way is the right way, and everybody else just doesn't get it. The irony and sadness (and scary part, for that matter) is that you are wrong-diddy-wrong-wrong. Even God facepalms Himself when He hears folks like you speak.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:18 am |
    • Ben

      Dion is right actually

      September 23, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
  3. Honesty

    YOU will recognize them by their fruits!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  4. Dennis

    Are people born that way? Did someone teach him?

    How can one originate that mindset?

    September 23, 2010 at 10:47 am |
  5. mitchyj

    How this Pope continues to be at the helm is beyond comprehension. The Church has and will continue to lose followers in droves for its inability to seriously and openly take on this issue.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:47 am |
    • Religion is a lie

      The pope still has his job and has been promoted due to his skillz of covering up the churchs uglyness.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  6. Justin

    This is stupid. I fell sorry for the kid, but he'll never win a case against the Pope. It's like suing AARP because an old person crashes into you while driving because AARP didn't do enough to get the minute number of elderly people who might do this off of the road.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:47 am |
    • Frogist

      @Justin: I think the difference is that the Catholic church has one leader who hands down the law for all of those beneath him. The AARP doesn't have that kind of organisation. Also the article stated that there was actual correspondence between the Pope and other parties involved in this particular case. That seems to point to directly to Benedict as a co-conspirator.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:52 pm |
  7. Utada

    This really makes me sick!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:46 am |
  8. Cat

    I completely side with the deaf victims... but I wonder why they don't sue the Police department, because they didn't do their job and even worse, THEY DROVE THEM BACK TO THE ABUSER.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • Religion is a lie

      The police are at fault as well. but so are everyone in that town. There must of been signs there always is. But like the police the people turned a blind eye and said there is no way things could be happening in the church.
      Could you throw the police under the bus for this? yes but the people of the town belong there as well. let's not forget thou. These future Trials should be about what these Victims want. If they want to hang a priest by all means i'll tie him up my self. If they want to kick the police in the balls one by one then i'll hold them down.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  9. guest

    Atleast we know that no matter how much dignity that priest received during his burial, he is went to HELL. Simply sick!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Did you, guest, have a personal revelation from God as to His judgment on this man's soul?

      September 24, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  10. panda

    the bloodiest and racist religion among us once again making news? nah i can't be. not the blood thirsting roman catholics, the only religious organization that gets involved in politics and corruption.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • Ryder

      It is a state power denounced in the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation... pagans...

      September 23, 2010 at 10:52 am |
  11. Khadijah

    omg this is cray i feel a so sorry for the little boys that were touched by this man its wrong of how they put the chruch before the kids all those deaf childrem=n that got touched by him and they ket him slide with no punishment that is wrong and i feel like they d=should still do something about it

    September 23, 2010 at 10:45 am |
  12. james

    Yet another attack on the chruch by CNN by digging up old news. shame on you CNN

    September 23, 2010 at 10:45 am |
    • sammy1974

      James, This is not old news. The lawsuit is current. Why do you not focus your anger at the criminals who are getting away with raping kids rather than shooting the messenger???

      September 23, 2010 at 11:49 am |
    • Mike

      But sammy this guy is no longer committing crimes... he's dead. Why not focus on the current criminals regardless of religion, aka Dateline's old job.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:16 pm |
    • Frogist

      @james: Yes, instead CNN should not publish any articles about child abuse in the Catholic church, right? The stories of the victims should be ignored, right? After all, that's what the Catholic church does, why shouldn't CNN?

      September 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
    • Twm

      Old news?? LOL Why do Catholics try so hard to defend exactly what their so called religion preaches against? Because its a Clergy member, does that make them infallible?? NO. Most current priests are priests because they have some psychotic problem. Some are gay and don't have the courage to open up about it so they hide in the Church. Some have violent tendencies and need to prove their power over others, they enter the Church to try and shield themselves from the World.
      As I said earlier, This Pope should be shot or hung for his acceptance of this garbage and Pope John Paul should have his gravesite urinated on by every single person who was abused under his reign as the Supreme Dope.

      September 23, 2010 at 1:02 pm |
    • Debbie

      You make a good Catholic, James. Sweep it under the rug.

      September 23, 2010 at 1:22 pm |
  13. Boxcarmike

    @ Raj......I whole heartedly agree with you. Religion is an archaic practice. It allows men to control through fear....even if they are preaching love......if you don't follow then you will be punished ( hell, purgetory or what have you ).....who has the right to tell me what I believe..? I believe what I want.......the 10 commandments are just commen knowledge.....you follow them to an extent and life is good......but to beleive that we are created by some remarkable bieng who sits back and allows horrors to happen....and then excpects us to believe that is the way it is .....is rediculous ..........

    September 23, 2010 at 10:44 am |
  14. Joe

    I ask this in all seriousness, how can anyone out there justify attending, defending, supporting or contributing to this organization. How do you look at yourself in the mirror? It is glaringly clear at this point that the catholic church has been complicit in keeping these montsters in close proximity to children while simultaneously laboring to cover up the abuse. And it is also glaringly apparent that the knowledge and execution went all the way to the top of the organization.

    It's astounding. I cannot fathom how anyone could walk into a catholic church in clear concious. I'd feel like needed to take a shower when I left.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:44 am |
    • Boxcarmike

      I agree with you......just make sure that the priest is not standing behind you in the shower waiting for the soap to drop....

      September 23, 2010 at 10:49 am |
  15. Canuck

    Angie – the RC church's refusal to let priests marry has nothing to with sin but everything to do with the church's wish that priests bequeath their wealth back to the church – not to their families.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  16. GMAN

    This is way better than American Idol

    September 23, 2010 at 10:43 am |
  17. AK

    Christians and their priests are all child molestors and rapists. They should all be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

    Follow Islam and you won't be doing these filthy things to your young children.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:41 am |
    • Ben

      follow Islam and you will go to Hell.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:44 am |
    • bad_preacher

      Son no one molests children in islam??? Seriously, wasn't your prophet married to a 6 year old? Having visited many majority muslim countries, I can't say anything good about their general treatment of women in society. Religion is a scam. The religious leaders are about power and money and oppresion. No thanks.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
    • Frogist

      @AK: That's the same kind of thinking that says muslims are all terrorists and should be prosecuted to the extent of the law. Do you want someone saying that and then telling you to follow christianity?

      September 23, 2010 at 12:30 pm |
    • Sully

      There are Muslims who teach their children to use AK-47s. All religion is corrupted and your precious Islam is no different.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:35 pm |
    • jollyme

      @bad_preacher – Get your facts right. Stop spreading lies about Islam. Our beloved prophet married Aisha after she had reached the age of puberty.

      @Ben – The devil also says follow Islam and you will go to Hell. No difference between you and the devil.

      September 23, 2010 at 4:25 pm |
    • jollyme

      To 'AK' (the original poster) – I'm a Muslim, and I know that not all Christians / Catholics are bad. I know many good Christians and many good Muslims. We can't judge an entire group of people based on the actions of a (terrible) few. We, of all people, should know this!!

      September 23, 2010 at 4:33 pm |
    • zk

      How old was the youngest wife of Mohamed? 9 years at most...
      you don't call that PEDOPHELIA?

      September 24, 2010 at 2:33 am |
  18. Dski

    Sodom and Gomora! but hey, there's nothing wrong with it as some say. well, the more sins we begin to accept, the more we will see those sinners carry out their wicked ways.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:41 am |
    • Frogist

      @Dski: Are you blaming gay people for pedophilia? How does that explain the little girls who were also r4ped by priests?

      September 23, 2010 at 12:25 pm |
  19. Twm

    All Churches are corrupt. The Dope err Pope should be shot for allowing this crap to continue. These abused people should gather on Pope John pauls gravesite on urinate all over him. The abuses that happened on his watch are just a sin.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:41 am |
  20. Blackrock

    This is why I take no part in religion. Bunch of twisted BS.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:40 am |
    • CarrieLea2

      You can't blame all religion. There are some wonderful honest, polite, respectful give-you-the-shirt-off-their-back religious people out there who respect your choice to not believe as they do. It's just really sad that the psychos always make the news.
      I will say that it can't help that catholics don't allow their priests to get married, then set them up with alter boys.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:16 am |
    • CatholicMom

      CarrieLea2,

      So your point is that if every single man were to get married, pedophilia would be eradicated from society? So every single man should be kept away from children because he is a pedophile until he gets married then it is safe for him to be around children? There is a sad story on this comment page about a boy who suffered at the hands of his own father. How come you idea didn’t work with him? The father was married to the boy's mother.

      September 25, 2010 at 3:41 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.