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. brave disney

    It's really a cool and useful piece of info. I am glad that you simply shared this helpful info with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thank you for sharing.

    July 15, 2012 at 11:24 pm |
  2. john

    makes me wish i wasn't baptized

    May 1, 2011 at 4:58 am |
    • Katie Murphy

      Dont worry about it. Do what millions in the USA alone have done – not one more cent for the church of the endless HIDDEN molestation of children worldwide.

      And find another trinity church, eg Evangelical Lutherans, Epicopal, and there are others.

      Is is any wonder that per EWTN in France, Spain and most other European countries, the church is on life support with only about 15% of the people attending mass on any regular basis.

      In Ireland, 10 years ago per reports I've read, church attendance was at 90% % on a regullar basis and now is at ABOUT 25%,. It has fallen precipitously. The pope announced last year he is cutting the number of Diocese from 21 to 10.

      February 3, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  3. Dr Pepper

    I wish a priest would lay with a nun.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:48 pm |
  4. Dr Pepper

    As a ex-student at St John's, Mr Kohut is a wonderful person, but He was never my teacher or dorm counselor, Now,how many of you needlessly ranted on this post? He lived in a hurtful lives. I never knew his dark secret. Get it on with your lives! Catholic are full of crock and lies.

    April 23, 2011 at 10:45 pm |
    • Howie Seago

      Hi. I am a professional Deaf actor and I'm trying to contact Terry Kohut about a play based on this sad saga.
      Can you go to Facebook and contact me?
      Howie Seago

      July 13, 2011 at 11:01 am |
    • glasskey99

      Remember the late AHMAD DEEDAT ? Now the truth of the late is CLEARLY VISIBLE...

      September 13, 2011 at 11:33 am |
    • Katie Murphy

      wonder if you would say thee same if it was your child. Some of the victims btw have committed suicide.

      Dobson had it right – give me a child by the age of 7 and I'll make him a christian for life.
      Brainwash him before he has the size and guts to tell the church to go to its proper grave in the devils lair.

      February 3, 2012 at 11:08 pm |
  5. Dr Pepper

    I remembered a line from former President Nixon, " I had make a great Pope", anyway.
    Thank goodness that I wasn't a student under Murphy, and I would never wanted to be a catholic for reasons; living a lie, also for being a ignorant, once a Baptist friend tried to snap it out on me.He tried to courage me to convert from catholic to Baptist. But denied anything, because I was tried of being under a bad impression or pressure.
    For those who did that to me, Thanks a bunch and thanks a million M-F! I like the Pope, cause he smoke the dope.

    March 20, 2011 at 10:04 pm |

    Does the "Holy See" actually expect the world to believe the pope's ignorance of what the entire world has been aware of for decades? This is a moral outrage as well as an insult to the intelligence of the human race.

    For it to be said on behalf of "his holiness" that he 'wasn't told' – 'didn't know' – 'cannot remember' is more than preposterous. The truth is that according to "canon law", once a sinner has confessed, he is absolved. Absolution – (check it in the dictionary) does not mean "forgiveness" – it actually means that the offender is declared blameless. How and why then to punish, restrict or otherwise discipline someone who is without blame? In other words – innocent ?

    December 8, 2010 at 3:59 am |
    • stanJames

      Its all aout the confessional, otherwise known as the CODE OF OMERTA Need I say more. The only question is whether the mob got the idea from the church – or vice versa.

      January 2, 2012 at 3:46 am |
    • Katie Murphy

      so I can go murder 3000 people and then confess and go free.? Canon law – it sounds like Islamic law – re 9=11

      YOu can go dig your own spot in hell. More power to you. t he sooner the better.

      May the Muslims give the church what it deserves for the catholic crusades that killed tens of millions of their people.

      February 3, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
  7. KG

    How sad this is. This is why that although I was formerly catholic, I am NOT raising my children Catholic. The church is corrupt and greedy. My prayers are with those poor children who were abused at the hands of the church, and who's plight was ignored for so long. May the Lord bring healing to both the victims and the church.

    November 6, 2010 at 7:41 pm |
    • Katie Murphy

      fAt chance the molester in charge – Benedict has had 20 + years to help fill the curia with people like hjmself. the incarnation of pure evil

      February 3, 2012 at 11:13 pm |
  8. Jackson


    October 11, 2010 at 5:20 pm |
    • Kate


      Sorry, Chris Crocker's version was funnier.

      And in video too.

      Just criticin'

      October 11, 2010 at 6:50 pm |
    • stanJames

      In a dungeon

      January 2, 2012 at 3:47 am |
  9. Lou

    Ok, reading throught this mess, I had to go back and see if it was about religion or the fact that a monster dressed as a preist molested helpless children. I am simply amazed that anyone is getting away with this! Pedophiles go to jail every day for their heinious acts, yet this man is "sorry for his crimes" and wishes to be left alone? Strip away the robe and he would have been tried, sentenced and facing hardened crminials with no tolerance for the likes of people like him. More stories come out like this everyday and it boggles the mind how many of these sickos are still out walking among us because the church feels they are "sorry". Funny thing, they are only sorry when they are too old to get it up an more...

    October 4, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  10. Dan

    I was born and baptized catholic ((not a capital C) they deserve no respect.) But i realized that there is no religion. Its man-made, not from a ("devine/godlike source"). But after realizing that the "Devil" is a man-made. every "STORY" in the bible is man-made, based on some persons account. Haha think about if someone these days said, "...and then i saw a cloud like object land and a being came out and said unto me, go and be fruitful." what would you say to him? yea i thought so. But the bible is nothing but stories and we believe them to our core. We have been lied to from the begining of time. But now that i know what happened and what is happening to us, and i am no longer bound to the "sin laws of a man-made, make-believe cult." These advacned beings you call god that came to us on clouds of fire and noise have no hold on me anymore. I know whats right and whats wrong. I choose to be right and do what i feel is right. If a man of cloth is able to do this and get away with it and the pope himself covers it up?! hmmm what would have happened to this preist in Old-England?? I can no longer trust any religion. look at ANY book of religion and see the good and the bad "gods" that came to us from not of this world. you can call this being god if you want but i really dont think god would need a vehicle to get around. If i went back as little as only 500 years and took a Bic Lighter or a dvd? with me, then i would also be GOD. we dont even know how old these people were when they got here over 5000 years ago. We didnt even know what toilet-paper was at that time, so yes, they were gods. ..."oh whats this, paper to wipe my ass, you must be a god, oh thank you, thank you my god". who was laughing at who? Wake up. Live in the light within yourself. the light within yourself is the only true power.

    October 4, 2010 at 10:57 am |
  11. ray gibbs

    Victims as valiant.

    October 2, 2010 at 9:54 pm |
  12. ray gibbs

    All without pity.

    October 2, 2010 at 9:40 am |
  13. ray gibbs

    Without parent, police, speech or trust. Scourage.

    October 2, 2010 at 9:31 am |
  14. Gunny

    Yawn... 50 years goes by & this guy squirms out? 1: if it's not true...GO TO HELL!, 2: if it true...GET OVER IT! Another money making scheme to rob the Catholic Church of funds it needs to do good things.

    September 30, 2010 at 3:48 pm |
    • Truth

      You have just been cursed: May you absorb all the darkness that your words reflect, thirty times over.

      April 20, 2011 at 11:19 pm |
  15. Lois


    September 29, 2010 at 10:56 pm |
    • stanJames

      the church of the endless hidden molestation of children all over the world

      January 2, 2012 at 3:49 am |
  16. Petel2

    Here is who the RCC pedos and their protectors want to harm again.


    After all, it's OK they harmed children and hide from the crimes because others did it too.

    September 29, 2010 at 7:09 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.