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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. Brianne

    Does it matter the religion one choses to be a part of? We ALL have an obligation to one another. Be be kind. To be honest.
    The atrocity isnt that this happend. The atrocity is the is was ALLOWED to happen....continually. Many people had the ability to stop it and chose not to. That to me is the saddest part of it all.
    Act with love and kindness. Act with positive intent.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  2. thinkman

    Most religions are businesses, they have brick and mortar places of worship to maintain, a staff of administrators, priests etc etc. When something threatens your business, you circle the wagons and do damage control. Unfortunately this is always at the expense of the "shareholders" or the public. It's always about the money. Wasn't Jesus poor? Didn't he give sermons in the open air on a hill? I don't think he had a gold chalice... Didn't he turned over the tables of the moneychangers? Well let's just ignore those parts of the story....

    September 23, 2010 at 11:26 am |
    • CatholicMom

      The gold chalice is to hold the Body and Blood of Jesus during Mass......He deserves the best we can do.

      September 23, 2010 at 8:53 pm |
  3. Peter

    The actions of Fr. Murphy are indefensible, plain and simple. The Church probably should have defrocked him despite his dying state and alleged penitent heart. That said, to paint this as a papal scandal is dishonest.

    Ratzinger didn't know of this abuse until well after it had taken place. The Milwaukee archdiocese informed him about Fr. Murphy TWENTY-TWO YEARS AFTER these disgraceful acts occured. If Ratzinger was wrong about something, it was being too merciful towards an evil, yet also powerless former abuser.

    Since being elected pope, Benedict XVI has addressed the absue scandal head on. A lot of Church officials are guilty of hiding abusive clergy and perpetuating abuse. Pope Benedict, however, is not one of them.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:26 am |
    • Charlie

      Well stated.

      September 23, 2010 at 1:23 pm |
  4. Frogist

    200 children... I guess I wonder why the Milwaukee church officials didn't go to the police themselves. Same old story I guess. They were just following orders. No one, except the victims, is without blame in this story. I wish them luck in accusing the Pope. But as I've been told, he has diplomatic immunity. I would say that naming him will bring more attention to this crisis. But how much more embarrassment does the church need to finally start acting in the welfare of its followers.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:26 am |
  5. MR

    TAX THE CHURCHES....
    THEY NEED TO FOLLOW THE SAME LAWS AS WE DO...

    September 23, 2010 at 11:25 am |
  6. Ken

    It says "a church trial against the headmaster was stopped and he was allowed to remain a priest",,,, But it doesn't say that the reason it was stopped because this guy was almost dead and actually died only a few months later.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:24 am |
  7. shah

    My religion is "PEACE". My religion is better than the rest of the religions out in the world. Islam, Chritianity, Judiasm, Hinduism, or whatever Voodoooims out there are all bunch of hypocratic theories. They are simple reasons we are killing each other. If you believe in God, then your God is bios. Why not we love each other and share the mother earth equally?

    September 23, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  8. Louis

    I have left the catholic church! The thought I cannot get out of my mind is if our priest is secretly lusting after them or what he would do to them if I wasn't around to protect them. Priests have more power over out kids than just other adults because that is how we raised them. The catholic church is a breeding ground for pedilfiles and we parents are only to happy to put our children into their "care". The priests don't have to hang out at playgrounds, parks or areas like this as we parents bring our children right to them.
    I find it unnerving not to go to church for fear that I will burn in hell as we are brainwashed. I now realize that being a member of anything out of fear is the wrong reason to be a member. I still struggle with leading my family into hell because of the way I feel and the life of churchlessness. I guess I will deal with my decision when my time comes. We all need to stop feeding our children to these pedophiles. May God have mercy on my soul.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:23 am |
    • thinkman

      Good for you. Believe in yourself and do good. You do not need to believe in imaginary supernatural beings, heaven or hell, something written on a piece of parchment from second hand evidence thousands of years ago and usurped by any man-made "church." You are right, this is all brainwashing to create fear and keep the sheep in line.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:08 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Louis, I'm sorry for the guilt and fear you are feeling. I think a lot of Catholics ignore that these abuses are hurting the church and people are leaving because of these scandals. I think some people need to stand up for what they think is right and clean up their church instead of shooting the messenger. I'm sure not every priest is an abuser. But until the Pope and authorities attack this crisis head on, how can regular people like you have confidence in their church?

      September 23, 2010 at 4:14 pm |
  9. Mel Pie

    It's unfortunate but something tells me nothing will come out of this. The catholic church always finds a way to avoid any responsibility in these cases. A slap on the wrist for them is all they'll get.
    I really hope I'm wrong but it always ends the same. These disgusting pieces of s*** will get their's when they try to cross the golden gates into their heaven!! Ha ha, good luck with that cause the only direction they'll be going is down.
    My heart goes out to everyone young and old who had to endure such pain at the hands of their leaders. Such a disgrace!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  10. Chase

    Ahhhh when are people going to stop playing dress up...and get back to reality.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:23 am |
  11. Ton

    There many muslim imams has multiple minor girls as wives. There are many gay imams molesting small boys in poor muslim countries. No one is suing them since they do not get justice or money as catholic church provides. Also sins by the welathy and celebrities are the favorite gossip. So sont try to undermine christian faith just because fwe criminals due to loop hole in church. Recreuited gays in the name of Celibacy/Chastisty

    September 23, 2010 at 11:21 am |
    • dingdong

      and how would you know about that if the cases are not reported?! are guessing that it might be happening, speculating, or what? I'me confused. muslim imams are allowed to marry unlike cath priests. that in my opinion is the core of the problem.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:24 am |
    • Alex

      Ton,
      execuses, execuses
      keep making execuses

      September 23, 2010 at 12:38 pm |
  12. Dex

    "Judas Priest!"

    September 23, 2010 at 11:20 am |
    • You take the "fun" out of "fundamental."

      That's hot! One of my buddy's favorite G-rated exclamations...

      September 23, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  13. GOD

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

    September 23, 2010 at 11:19 am |
    • Ben

      The how could He say that?

      September 23, 2010 at 12:18 pm |
  14. Pam

    This has to be THE most horrible of horrible stories of child abuse I've ever read. Can you just imagine the fear of these kids laying in bed every night so scared "this is the night he will come for me"! If the Pope knew about these gruesome events then he should be held accountable for it. I'm from a Catholic family, and I'm ashamed of the manipulation the church has had in this travesty of justice.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:18 am |
  15. ieat

    Since I'm catholic, I know I'm a little biased, but hear me out anyways. I think one of the premise of the Catholic church is the idea of confession and forgiveness. I have met many priests that are extremely nice and definitely NOT child molesters. And the problem is, these priests are so nice that ... they are also easy to be deceived. I mean do you ever see the priests telling people in confession that they cannot be forgiven? The church isn't about persecuting people who screwed up, but forgiving them and helping them be better people. They complete messed up with the child molestation cases where they think the terrible horrible pedophiles wearing a priest rope can repent, and that's where I think they messed up.

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

      @ieat: Since you are Catholic, isn't everyone allowed repentance? Doesn't god accept all who seek forgivness. Isn't that a basic fundamental teaching of christianity? Are you advocating that the church pick and choose who gets to be forgiven?

      September 23, 2010 at 4:04 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Frogist,

      No one is guar-ante-ed absolut!on.

      Here is an example: If someone confes-sed that he was ‘living’ with his girl-fri-end and they were not mar-ried, the priest may ask if they were forn!ca-ting…if the man said, yes, the priest may ask how long this has been going on or some other questions to better dis-cern what the man was confes-sing to. Let’s say that the man was confes-sing to forn!cation. The priest may ask ‘when are you moving out?’ If the man says that he has no in-tent!on of moving out or changing his life style, I would guess he is not sin-cere about his con-tr!tion and would not receive ab-solut!on.

      September 24, 2010 at 3:47 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Frogist,

      Another thought here is that even if the man said he was not going to move out but plans on not forn!cating anymore, he is st!ll bringing scandal to himself and the Church by pers!st-ing in staying near the source of his sin and is not doing all he should to stay away from temp-tat!on since it was proven to make him fall into sin already.

      September 24, 2010 at 5:39 pm |
    • Kate

      @CatholicMom

      So how do you explain just how many pedophile priests were absolved, relocated, then went right back onto molesting even more kids, time and time again?

      "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me" – Just how much shame should the Church bear when it's fooled so comprehensively by multitudes of molesters?

      You know as well as I do that absolution is only granted if there is genuine contrition for sins, and only if the sinner is prepared to make amends for their sin. That was not the case in so many of these times, and it isn't something that was limited to one, it was wholesale, widespread, pernicious, and penetrated every level of the hierarchy all the way up to Pope John XXIII, and every Pope following, every Prefect following.

      You know this. You've forgotten the difference between the people and the position – you want to defend the Benedict the Pope, but you end up defending Ratzinger the man, and that's where you're being abused yourself by the Prelates.

      Just notin'

      September 24, 2010 at 5:58 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Kate,

      If you know which priests are the pedophiles which have been sent around, please, pick them out,…. go for it. We ALL want them out. Just making accusations is no different than people screaming that President Obama wasn’t born in America or whatever other accusations are out there….

      I trust that the Catholic Church is being cleansed; internal steps at pre-seminary level have been put in place; steps are being taken to eliminate the guilty priests and anyone else involved. I trust the Holy Spirit is in control as He has been for 2000 years.

      People sin, all have concupiscence; in this case it appears there is hatred directed at the Church more than there is a desire for justice for the victims. If these haters could see the Catholic Church crumble, they would forget all about the victims.

      Just observin’

      September 25, 2010 at 6:08 pm |
  16. ldd

    this is one of the sadest stories I have ever heard. My heart always breaks for abused children. I read some of these comments left and they are all pretty sad too. I just want for all of us to release the hatred from our hearts. It's so easy to hate these days with all the negativity happening. It makes us all so hard. If I could have one wish for today, it would be for all people to have some joy in their hearts and peace in their lives. I haven't been able to acheive this personally, but I'm going to keep trying.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:18 am |
  17. cathgrl

    I'm a Catholic who loves her religion. I enjoy the history of Catholism, but do not defend the Catholic Church. Rome needs to crumble. My views are not in line with the Vat and there are a ton of us who feel this way. I'm sick of people acting like this is only happening in the Catholic Chuch. WAKE UP! This is happening all over. Hello..the mega church and Mr. Long. This is a disgusting act and happens in all walks of faith. There are very few REAL priests/preachers/pastors/revs. It's sad, but they are politicians who wear nice suits, drive overly priced cars, wear expensive jewelry...it's a shame that people follow these so-called christian leaders. Put your trust in God, not man. I dislike my priest (and pray he goes to rome with the rest of them), but love my church. One MAN in a black robe doesn't make my faith. God Bless all who have suffered and I hope some day the guilty will pay!

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

      Cathgrl,

      The Catholic Church is like a 3 legged stool…the Holy Tradition, The Magisterium, and the Bible. How will you like your stool with 2 legs? It will not be any better than the 1 legged stool that protestants have…..Your dear Catholic Faith cannot stand if you throw out Authority. Do you like how our brothers and sisters in their search for the House of God have split into 35,000 differing houses? And as you know, and as they know, their houses are built on sifting sands…if this is not true, then how is it that more splits are coming day by day?

      Has the Holy Spirit handed out 35,000 differing Truths or only ONE?

      September 24, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  18. Amy

    Mr. Talal, what Mark meant ( it is the message of all the prophets) was that the Quran gives the same message what all the erlier prophets(Abraham, Moses, Jesus, David etc.) gave.

    Please be polite in your answers, actions and tone – that's one of the prime characteristic of Muslims. Thanks.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:18 am |
  19. Malik

    All I can say is hit them where it hurts. The pocketbook. Remember Beulah Mae Donald's lawsuit against the Klan ended up with her owning their home base in Stone Mountain, Ga, effectively bankrupting them. Every victim should sue the catholic church, not just Ratzinger.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:17 am |
  20. Juan

    I happen to think all religion is unnecessary. I hope there is a god. I, however, doubt that god is the god presened by the catholic faith. I mean if god is all powerful why would he allow atrocities such as this to take place. I am sure all of those molested kids still suffer daily from the memories of the abuse. Also, how many other molesters did this man create?

    September 23, 2010 at 11:17 am |
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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.