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. Fuyuko

    The church had a moral obligation to bring that man to justice and he has failed all the victims by letting that freak get away with his horrible crimes.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:51 pm |
  2. peacelover


    If Allah has sealed the hearts of the Kuffar i.e. non-Muslims, then why are they to be blamed for not accepting Islam?


    1. Allah has sealed the hearts of those who are continuously bent on rejecting the truth

    Allah (swt) mentions in The Holy Qur'an, Chapter 2 Verses 6 and 7 "As to those who reject Faith, it is the same to them Whether thou warn them or do not warn them; they will not believe. Allah hath set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing, and on their eyes is a veil; great is the penalty they (incur)."

    These verses do not refer to common Kuffar who reject faith. The Arabic words used are al-lazina kafaroo, those who are bent on rejecting the truth. It will not make any difference to such people whether you warn them or not, they will not believe. Allah has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearing and on their eyes is a veil. It is not because Allah has set a seal on their hearts that these kuffar do not understand and believe, but it is the vice-versa. It is because these kuffar are bent on rejecting the truth and whether you warn them or not they will not believe, that Allah has set a seal on their hearts. Therefore Allah is not to blame, but these kuffaar who are bent on rejecting the faith are responsible.

    2. Example of teacher predicting a student will fail

    Suppose an experienced teacher, before the final examinations, predicts that a particular student will fail in the exams, since the student is very mischievous, not attentive in class and does not do his homework. If after the student appears for the examination, he fails, who is to be blamed for the student failing: the teacher or the student? Just because the teacher predicted, it does not mean that the teacher is to be blamed but the student himself is responsible for his failure. Similarly Allah (swt) knows in advance that there are some people who are bent on rejecting the faith and Allah has put a seal on their hearts. Thus these non-Muslims themselves are responsible for rejecting the faith and not Allah (swt).

    September 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  3. AJ

    How does the Vatican think that it is a valid defense that the allegations were "over 20 years" old and IN THEIR OPINION the priest posed no further threat? The Vatican is not a law enforcement or judiciary body! How arrogant that they thought this was their role. Now they will have REAL LAW ENFORCEMENT brought to bear on them.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  4. 2newsmaking

    I was not surprised at all when I saw the pictures in the front page:(
    What had happened to all those claimed to be very religious people?
    Christian ==> child molestation,
    Muslims ==> terrorism,
    Jews ==>killing and occupying lands.
    It must be the followers not the original teachings.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:50 pm |
  5. Jay the Athiest

    I worship Adam Carolla and you should too.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  6. Catholic in NY

    It's interesting that the Pope continues to claim ignorance except after the fact. His own brother Georg is accused of abusing many young boys while acting as choir master of a German boys boarding school. How many times can this man pretend to "look the other way"?

    September 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  7. Mizh

    It's disgusting that the catholic church keeps covering up for these sick b*st**ds. It is WRONG and it wrecks these boys' lives... this has to stop. Figures an ex-Hitler Youth pope looks the other way.... sickening. Mr. Kohut — you are truly brave.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  8. Suzette

    For the life of me, I don't understand why these abuse cases are not prosecuted as they would be had the offender been a teacher or a maintenance man. Why is the Catholic Church allowed by these jurisdictions to "handle these matters internally?" A crime is a crime, period. We have separation of Church and State in this country precisely to prevent these sorts of abuses. As an ex-Catholic, it truly makes me sick that the Church is allowed to protect these lowest-of-the-low predators.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  9. Crash1017

    You catholicks are freakin idiots!!! get a clue and accept you're all crooked and evil!!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  10. fed up american

    this site is being filtered. wonder what good ideas are being banned on here, wonder what people really think

    September 23, 2010 at 12:47 pm |
  11. anobody

    It is time to close the book on religion and start heading towards progress as human beings. Getting stuck in old world ways with old world theology is a thing of the past and needs to be left behind. It is time that the fairytale are laid to rest and people start to live in the rela world. Reral life with real consequences what a concept. Lets make religion the myth that it longs to be.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:46 pm |
  12. peacelover

    It should be remembered never the less that full apreciation of the spirit of the Quran demands practical involvment with the struggle to fullfll its mission. The quran is neither a book of abstract theories and cold doctrines- which the reader can grasp while seated in a cozy arm chair, nor is it mearly a religious book like other religious books- the secrets of which can be grasped in seminaries and auditories. On the contrary it is the blue print, a guide book of a message of a mission of a movement. As soon as the book was revealed it drove a quiet kind hearted man from his isolation and seclusion, and placed him upon the battle field of life to challenge a world that has gone astray. It inspired him to raise his voice against falsehood and pitted him in a grim struggle against the standard bearers of unbelief; of disobedience to god of waywardness and error.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  13. bfly

    I am glad to see these people coming forward about this situation. Unfortunately, this happens in many churches. There are many perverts lurking and hiding behind the churches and mostly take advantage of children whose fathers are not present in family situations. These children are easy targets in their minds. I have an uncle who was and is now deacon in a Baptist church that I grew up in. He was thought of highly within the church and molested me from when I was a child until I was a teen. When I went to another deacon about it when I was older, and told him about the situation, he brought it to the attention of the pastor and I believe for a while my uncle was not a deacon anymore; however, he was allowed to sing in the choir and to solo's in front of the church. It gave me the creeps every time I saw him in front of the church. Once I left that church when I moved away, they allowed him to become a deacon again. This has always bothered me because for one thing he has never confessed that he did this. It bothers me that a deacon would pry on children whose father isn't present in their life. At this time, I have no respect for that church and only attend about once a year with my mom when she is in a performance. It is very hard for me to see my uncle sing in the choir, be a deacon and be in front of the church. It bothers me even more that the pastor allows this. I would come forward more publically but I don't want to shame my mother or my aunt and her children.

    I also have an older friend who I met in college who has children around my age. She went to that same church when I was young and I knew her children. Her husband was highly regarded in that church and was on the Christian School Board of that church (the church is also a school). Later when we became friends, she told me that her husband molested all their three daughters and their granddaughter.

    I feel blessed that I have turned out somewhat of a normal person but have suffered a lot throughout my life because of this situation. And my friend’s daughters and granddaughter have suffered greatly and two of them will never be right. They have many, many problems due to what they experienced. And my friend has suffered greatly too. But because of her strength, it has helped me get through a lot of my trials that have gone along with my experience. My relationship with my aunt has suffered because of this. She knows that he has done this but doesn’t do anything about it. I do not believe either of her son’s know about it. She always acts like nothing is wrong and my mom follows suit.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
    • Mary

      bfly: I am sorry about what happened to you and those girls.
      You should say something, you will not embarrass your mom, at least do it anonymous. And your friend should talk also.
      Speaking out maybe you help other kids are being abused too.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:04 pm |
    • Peacemaker

      Very sad, God bless you. Peace.

      September 23, 2010 at 3:34 pm |
    • Frogist

      @bfly: I'm sorry about what you experienced but I'm with Mary. I know that's easy for me to say. But there has to be someone you can tell who can keep these people away from others they might abuse. A psychiatrist or a school counselor or a nurse may be able to point you in a good direction where you can report what you know to the authorities anonymously. And you don't even have to tell them it was you when you talk to them if it's too embarrassing. Allaboutcounseling(dot)com and rainn(dot)org are two resource sites that might have some helpful info as well. Hope this helps. I wish I had more to give you.

      September 23, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
  14. Alan Breton

    Lawyers are making people stupid! I think I will sue GM if I ever get hit by someone in a Chevy.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  15. Norm

    Most of you here deny the existence of God because you have no proof He exists, but you'll believe some 60 year old deaf guy with just as much proof he was molested by a preist.
    Whatever the media wants you to believe. Brainwashed sheep.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Norm: Yes, I believe him, and the other 2 who corroborated his story. They are not contradictory to other accusations against Catholic priests and other cover ups. Does the God you speak of have 2 other gods to corroborate his story? Or how about accounts of this God that don't contradict each other?
      Not that it seems you would care, but I do have sympathetic feelings towards people who have religious faith even though that is not my own belief. That's something I doubt you can say of people who don't believe as you do. As for you putting down the victims like that... heaven help you.

      September 23, 2010 at 5:21 pm |
  16. David

    If what Mr. Murphy marries with his wife. It would not happen to deaf victims.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:44 pm |
  17. Johnny_LeverArm

    Catholics....Can't live with em...Can't live without em 🙂

    September 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
  18. Just a though

    This is a tragic story. I have never commented on one of these articles before but I find it odd as I read through this comments that no one really seems to go for the full story or picture, just looking for a platform to state their opinion. (No insult meant to those who perhaps did) This is not just about God, it's about mankind and yes it is about organized religion abusing its influence and about holding people accountable regardless of position or religion. Wether God exist or not is a choice every person is given, to call one who chooses to believe in God ignorant because it does not fit in your belief system is in itself ignorant. This is irony. It's calling someone else close minded because you yourself are close minded. We are often set in our own belief systems, atheism, agnostic, or religion wether we understand what we believe or not, which most of us do not. We simply believe it because it is easy to believe or our current experience tells us to believe it. Or knowledge we gained from articles or television shows told us to believe it, but they are often incorrect. Once the whole civilized world strongly believed the world to be flat but it did not make them right....even though their best research indicated it to be true. But we defend vigorously what we ourself no little about. I've been to 3rd world countries, worked in orphanages and inner city missions and I can tell you the last thing the world needs is more opinion flaunting and a little more action and compassion for your fellow man. My encouragement to people is simple, truth is good but truth combined with love and understanding is better! Give more thought before judgement (in case of the priest though I would say his actions fully judged himself and he was not deserving of mercy on man's end and should have been given the fullest punishment possible for the sake of his victims as well as being an example to future offenders of what the consequence of that atrocious and horrendous action is. To take advantage of a vulnerable child like this is nothing short of evil. Any person in true repentance for this action would GLADLY give themselves over to the consequence of their crime)

    September 23, 2010 at 12:43 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Just a though: Well said.

      September 23, 2010 at 5:11 pm |
  19. Kathy

    This is Man's doing, not God. Leave the church and lead the life you were meant to. You don't need the church, you have all the tools and information at your disposal. Stop acting like blind sheep already, stop beind a dependent, get active instead.

    September 23, 2010 at 12:42 pm |
  20. jaman

    I am sure the revelation of truths in these matters will bring about the downfall of the Roman Catholic church as we know it

    September 23, 2010 at 12:42 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.