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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. CJ

    Terrible!! 😦 I feel so very sad for all victims.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  2. X-Catholic

    I stopped going to mass 5 years ago and won't be back until the church names the abusers and enablers (living and dead), punishes them and makes reparations to the victims....and that includes the Pope. Anything else is contrary to my beliefs as a Catholic.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  3. robert

    And oh course, the lord god, the being who created the universe, the being who flooded the earth because of the sinners, the being who firebombed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah because of the wicked people, sat by and did nothing while his representatives on earth had their way with these victims. But, then again, what would you expect from an imaginary being? The only purpose for believing in this myth is to give power to those self-appointed spokesmen of god. We have seen time and time again how they abuse the trust people place in them. Time to wakeup people and stop giving up your free will to a bunch of con-men who claim to speak with invisible and powerful beings.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:16 am |
  4. Hang'm

    Time for the Pope to resign his position in disgrace. He has assassinated his own personal integrity by covering up the abuses .

    September 23, 2010 at 11:15 am |
  5. Hilary

    All SINCERE Catholics disgusted by this grossly immoral cover-up, heed the words of Jesus Christ to his disciple the Apostle John in Revelation 18:4-8: Basic English Bible
    4. And another voice from heaven came to my ears, saying, Come out of her, my people, so that you may have no part in her sins and in her punishments.
    5. For her sins have gone up even to heaven, and God has taken note of her evil-doing.
    6. Give to her as she gave, even an increased reward for her works; in the cup which was mixed by her, let there be mixed as much again for herself.
    7. As she gave glory to herself, and became more evil in her ways, in the same measure give her pain and weeping: for she says in her heart, I am seated here a queen, and am no widow, and will in no way see sorrow.
    8. For this reason in one day will her troubles come, death and sorrow and need of food; and she will be completely burned with fire; for strong is the Lord God who is her judge.
    PLEASE notice that it does not say: "Stick around and try to fix her." It says: "COME OUT OF HER, MY PEOPLE". If you really want to be on Jesus side, then you must abandon THE ORGANIZATION.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:14 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Hilary,

      Do you realize that the Catholic Church decided which Books of the Bible were the Word of God? Did you know that Martin Luther, a Catholic priest, wanted to throw out the Book of Revelation? The Book of James also, besides the ones he did throw out?

      Your interpretation of Revelation is incorrect. Let’s just pretend for a minute that YOU are correct and these verses mean what you think….the Book of Revelation would not have been included by the Church because it would not have a thing to do with all the rest of the Books which speak of a Truth that is in the Old and New Testaments and your interpretation contradicts all of them. The O and the NT fit together perfectly as it is.

      This is what happens when people go and interpret the Bible as they so please….does it please the Holy Spirit that there are 35,000 differing interpretations of His Word?

      September 24, 2010 at 2:10 pm |
  6. Arthur

    Just a quick point of correction. With regards to Terry's interview, it's called "signing" not "talking with your hands". American Sign Language is and has been the most popular form of communications for deaf people for over 100 years.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:14 am |
    • Izzisgirl

      I think it's been just a little longer than that.

      September 24, 2010 at 12:54 pm |
  7. Robert

    Pope Benedict is doomed to hell if he does not confess. He is personally just as guilty as Murphy.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  8. LCCatFan

    You can't hardly blame the pope for not pressing the issue. After all, he was no doubt doing the same thing somewhere else and the other pedophiles used that against him. If the pope had as many sticking out of him as he's had stuck in him he'd look like a pocupine.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:13 am |
  9. Alex

    Thank God I'm muslim and not christian catholic

    September 23, 2010 at 11:12 am |
    • Jay

      Great Mr. Muslimo! So I guess you and your moslem compadres are hot on the trail of all the suicide bombers and men who torture and beat their wives.... Right?

      RIGHT? Hello...?

      September 23, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  10. LE

    let's just start the religious war already!!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  11. Brian Padua

    If you know and dont speak... you are just as responsible for the crime its self.
    someone walks by a mistake in the path of an on comming car, you push or yell... your neibhor hits jis wife or kids and you hear it threw the walls on a daily bases you say something.... a crime doesnt not have to invoulve in death inorder or a reaction to happen... stop a crime bfore it happenes or at least before it gets out of control.
    but now its too late... too much time has passed in order to sue... i say write a tell all book and continue to try your hardest to move on

    September 23, 2010 at 11:10 am |
  12. Taty

    I am a catholic and I don't agree with any type of abuse no matter what religion. Now, DONT WE SEE THESE TYPE OF THINGS HAPPeNING IN OTHER RELIGIONS??? Just because there are some rotten apples in my religion I have to stop believing on what I believe?? No. Does Muslims stop being Muslims just because some others decided to take it to the stream and blow up themselves to kill other in the name of Allah?? No. Now look what's happening with pastor Long of another religion. Every religion has its issues......

    September 23, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • cathgrl

      well said. i'm sick of this always being a catholic issue when it happens in every religion. society/media is so biased and determined to break down the vat...that's fine by me, but lets not act like it's exclusively a catholic issue.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • Frogist

      No, child abuse is not an exclusively Catholic situation. Child abuse occurs all over the world, regardless of religion. But the difference between that and what is happening with Catholicism, is that the Vatican and the Pope, the highest official in the Catholic church who has "dominion" over how every Catholic church operates, has been participating in covering up and excusing the se-xual abuse of children. These abuses have been going on in churches all over the world for decades if not longer. All this is occuring in an organisation that claims a moral authority. That to me makes it an exclusively Catholic issue.

      September 23, 2010 at 3:54 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Nope! Not just a rcc pope-a-dope issue – child ab-use does exist in all religions. But I do think catholic's reaction when yet another incident comes to light, is pretty much "don't blame the church/pope/etc." and attack the victim and then mention that the rcc is not alone. Way more denial, deflection and delusion that facing reality. If this really is a local parish issue, I think we be hearing about how congregations havie had a "heart-to-heart" with their charlatans about what might happen if they so much as look as if they might touch a child, rather than yet another pedo-priest story.

      September 24, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
    • CanUfixit

      @taty A lot of Christians do not condone Catholicism & these pedophile incidents aren't just a few isolated incidents. It's not an attack on the catholic church. I believe God is exposing these things. Are you aware that a lot of other Christ churches consider the catholic church to be the antichrist, beast power as written in the book of Revalation . Talk to native indians, some of them were tortured, had their tongues cut off if they spoke in their native language by catholic missionaries, children taken away from their families, molested. If you were in a holy church these things wouldn't be going on or condoned. Murphy needs to be incarcerated so he can't hurt anyone else. God didn't tell him or missionaries to do these things, who did? Talk to other Christians they will clue you in.

      September 29, 2010 at 4:53 am |
  13. Matt

    I don't have kids yet, but when I do, I'm not letting them within 20ft of ANY church. Religion is a virus.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • Ben

      You can't label all churches as this corrupt. I feel so sad that you would not want to raise your kids with Godly instructions, and even if you intend on doing that but leaving out the church part, that is also bad, because fellowship with other believers is a vital part in having that relationship with Jesus.

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

      @Ben – Such a predictable and sugar-coated answer. I choose not to waste time nurturing a relationship with an imaginary god.

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

      Sure we can label all churches as evil – freedom of speech and all that! I think so little of organized religion that I have told my two sons explicitly that if they become involved in *any* religion, they will not inherit so much as one cent!! THERE ARE NO GODS – NOT EVEN JUST 1!!

      September 23, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
    • Izzisgirl

      You are telling your children what they are allowed to believe????? If you were my parent, I'd tell you to keep your damn money and let me live my own life.

      September 24, 2010 at 12:53 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Nope! I'm not telling them what to believe. I am telling them what I believe (just as other parents do when they send their children to Sunday School, or force them to say grace, or go to church, or...) and I am telling them what the consequences will be if they do not agree with my beliefs (just as other partents do when they tell their children "Beleive in this hocus-pocus or you will go to (insert some bad place).") Please explain how my stance differs from many other parents?

      September 24, 2010 at 1:04 pm |
    • Frogist

      @HotAirAce: Your stance does not differ... and therein lies the hypocrisy. If you would react in the same small-minded way that a religious person would, then you are no better. Except you don't have religion to blame for your intolerance.

      September 24, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      @Frogist

      Sorry, you are going to have to explain how I am being hypocritical? I have informed my children of my sincerely held believes (which they appear to sincerely share) and of the consequences of doing otherwise. I have not behaved, and do not intend to behave, differently than I have stated. Why would I reward someone, even my own child, for doing something I believe to be absolutely stupid?

      September 24, 2010 at 7:33 pm |
    • CanUfixit

      @ Matt I can empathize why your age group are turned off by churches, especially about evil things happening like this in the catholic church.You are a physical and spiritual being, both parts of you need to be nourished as a whole. If you seek good in life- Jesus teaches these things. Being non denominational is what I have learned and arrived at in my own studies. If there's no true peace or real love in a church's teachings then don't go for it. Jesus is the Prince of Peace.Study basic philosphesys of all religions except obvious deceptive evil ones. Seek and you shall find. Pray to Jesus to reveal himself to you in spirit and he will.

      September 29, 2010 at 4:28 am |
  14. CarrieLea2

    It is so sad that professional athletes are held to higher moral standards than catholic church officials.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:10 am |
    • WDinDallas

      Darn, I thought the contributions were for the next crusade.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  15. Cristobal22

    People of Faith:
    Every time you put money in the collection plate at a Catholic church you are contributing to attorneys' fees, court settlements and salaries of pedophiles. That is immoral.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:09 am |
    • Sully

      hear hear!

      September 23, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  16. mfaphoto

    I left the church long ago when I came to the conclusion that it's policies were not relevant to modern life, nor did they change based on scientific discovery. That said, it is not the church that is corrupt. It is a significant part of the clergy and their thinking. They must be purged for the church to move past this. That involves the voluntary resignation of the Pope. The Pope is supposed to be infallible. He has already proven himself to have failed.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:07 am |
  17. Deaf culture advocate

    To the editors/authors: you refer in your piece (twice) to a "deaf interpreter" being involved in the interview process. For the sake of clarity, and heightened understanding, it was not the interpreter who was deaf. Interpreters for deaf people can be sign language interpreters and/or oral interpreters. In this instance it was clearly a Sign Language interpreter and what's important about that is Sign Language is a unique language and it is the language translation that is taking place. Many people misunderstand that deaf people are using English just in another form, and while it is possible to sign in english word order, American Sign Language has a grammar and syntax of its own and hence, interpreters are required. It's about more than the mechanics of hand movement. Thought this little bit of insight into the world of deafness might be helpful.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:07 am |
  18. Spider

    The Diocese will do something like go bankrupt and the 200 will not receive much, if any, financial compensation. Bankruptcy has been done by the church in other places. Money is beside the point. Expose these individuals for the monsters they are. The Catholic Church will have one heck of a marketing job to remove the glaring face of pedophilia. For clarification, it is 'interpreters for the deaf" not deaf interpreters. Sign Language Interpreters are highly skilled individuals. They are invaluable, particularly in situations such as this.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:06 am |
    • Izzisgirl

      Actually, it's not "interpreters for the deaf". We also interpret for hearing people. It's "sign language interpreter".

      September 24, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  19. mike

    seriously...... when did god ever say dress up similar to the KKK, sing the most horrible un melodic songs about the most random crap, and let all the perverts in the world be in control? its about YOU and GOD , all this hoop-la is a prime example of mankind's twisted views of power and how things should get done.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:06 am |
  20. krishna venkatesh

    Yeah, sue his ass and the whole church and win my deaf friend!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:06 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.