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. Kat

    I only hope one day the terrible secrets of the Vatican are revealed and 'the walls fall down.'

    September 23, 2010 at 3:15 pm |
  2. Benjamin

    Fr. Murphy abused children. 21-years later Ratzinger was notified (Murphy is retired and 2-years later died). Therefore, it is the Ratzinger's fault. That is flawless reasoning.

    September 23, 2010 at 3:02 pm |
    • Kate


      While you're flailing around frantically trying to find a reason to deny the possibility that Ratzinger might bear any responsibility whatsoever for such heinous crimes, you almost certainly should not research the Crimine solicitationies that Ratzinger wrote a letter to all Bishops reminding them to keep to its instructions.

      That would be the rules about priest s3x abus3 demanding secrecy, oaths, threats of excommunication, not relaying cases to the lawful authorities ... you know, the stuff that made such atrocities possible, and covered up their existence?

      Ratzinger has blood on his hands. I know people don't want to admit it, but none of you can keep denying his involvement, then and now (Crimine solicitationies has not been revoked, and "guidelines" are superceded by it).

      Just condemnin'

      September 23, 2010 at 5:41 pm |
  3. Malta

    When did GOD ever need money?
    Or to live in luxury?
    Or to charge for admission?
    Or to harbour secret monies behind closed doors of secret banks?
    Or to ride around in a half million dollar bullet proof Mercedes vehicle?
    Or to hide terrible, violent acts against the innocent?
    That sounds the least godlike - and more like criminals to me.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:55 pm |
  4. Burn the Bible

    What do Christmas Trees and Priests have in common?

    Both have presents for kids hidden underneath them.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm |
  5. Burn the Bible

    A pope a day keeps your sins at bay.

    Q: What is the difference between a Christmas tree and priest?

    A. One has balls for decorations and the other hides presents for little kids.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:52 pm |
  6. Lina

    As disgusted and incensed as I am with the Catholic church for their lack of responsibility or compassion in dealing with this on-going issue, I am more enraged reading the comments of devout church-goers, that "GOD will punish the evil ones" or "see to it that justice is served" or "has a plan of some sort." WHY WOULD GOD ALLOW THIS TO HAPPEN in the first place? IN HIS OWN HOUSE? And if God does indeed have a plan, that how is it different from that of men who war? Hundreds, thousands suffer.. for what may someday be revealed as an intelligent plan?

    The Vatican is worse than the MOST corrupt and dishonest government/politics!

    I hope this man is successful in cracking through the pompous and ornate shield of lies that uphold the Vatican!

    September 23, 2010 at 2:50 pm |
  7. Raph

    Am really shocked to hear that preists of all people do,if it is true then,justice must prevail as far as God exist.What a shame to our church

    September 23, 2010 at 2:45 pm |
  8. imam

    that is what they do in the church ........... oh allah forgive all our sin, you know if he was a muslim they were making a big deal and he has already gone to prison?

    September 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
  9. Benjamin

    The "conclusions" made from the facts in this story are so illogical and fallacious, you won't see this story on any other site than CNN - the Communist National Network.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:34 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Well then, go to the Faux news website. No one is forcing you to stay here.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • peace2all


      Of course....... Please get your *truth*.. at the 'real' newsite....'Fox New' ..you know.... 'fair and balanced'...

      Get a grip dude...!


      September 23, 2010 at 3:01 pm |
  10. Luciano

    Why is CNN posting this as a head line now? Its been in existence for a while. A very sad case admidetly, but the facts as presented are incorrect in terms of what the current Pope's responsibility were at the time of the comlaint coming to Rome. His congregation (i.e.) WAS not in charge of handling priest abuse cases.
    Also questioning why CNN is airing another hatchett job on this Holy Man this coming weekend? Could it be that the liberal elitist anti-Catholic CNN wants to counterbalance the postives from his recent trip to Britain with more untrue facts and inuendo. CNN the world leader in lack of journalistic standards, right up there with New York Times.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
    • Kate

      4 attempts to post accurate responses to this, 4 failures awaiting moderation, on a thread so filled with comments once more the moderators will simply go through and nuke all the pendings as they've done on other busy comments.

      So @CNN, a response for you is on my site. Unlike here, mine's properly configured so you can comment if you like.

      Just sayin'

      September 23, 2010 at 3:32 pm |
  11. ET

    I any organization had so many scandals, it would be shut down for ever, and the CEO who's been pushing things under the rug would be sent to prison or at least resign! How come the same hasnt happened to Ratzinger and his company?

    September 23, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  12. Petel2

    Assemblyman Vito Lopez – supports the catholic church first, created distractions to stop the bill from passing that would expose the pedos. He caused Assembly Woman Margret Markey undue stress causing her to go to the hospital. She has several names of abusive clergy she wanted exposed to protect children.

    Senator JOHN J. BONACIC – won't let anyone harm his church, made the statement on film too.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Senator JOHN J. BONACIC is a Republican. What do you expect? Republicans are racist. They are the party of rich, white men.

      Vote for the Dems in November.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:38 pm |
  13. skeptic2

    The irony of the world-wide pedophilic travesty is that the responses from the Pope and his Church have unwittingly become one of the soundest argument for atheism and against prayer. We have hundreds of innocent boys over as many years begging God to help them as they are repeatedly molested by priests inside of church, and absolutely nothing happens to end their terror. Their abuse continues day after day in some cases for years. One must wonder where was God and God’s mercy when all this horror was taking place? The Church has never addressed this question. But let's face it, the Church and its apologists have a major theological dilemma here and they know it. I find it interesting that in all the editorial back and forth, no one asks the obvious question, “why didn’t God intervene to end all this horror?” Currently all the arguments and accusations from both sides of the issue are at the strictly secular level. How curious that no one has asked the larger, more embarrasing questions about the complete absence of the central character in this long running sordid story.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
    • CatholicMom


      When people sin and it hurts not only themselves but others the cry is always….where was God in all of this?

      God does not will anyone to suffer but if someone harms another just because he has the freewill to do so…God does not step in and control each person. We do not fully understand how God can take our suffering and turn it into good but He can. If he took away all our freewill and made us into robots we could never be loving creatures. And so, because of this gift of freewill, there are those who misuse it and abuse it; no one likes to hear of satan in all of this but we are at war against evil. Sin glorifies satan; love glorifies God. God allows us to choose and so people are to blame when they do wrong, not God.

      September 24, 2010 at 7:26 pm |
  14. Maureen

    Dear Petel 2,
    I am truly sorry you suffered such abuse. I will pray for you and for your healing.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
    • David Johnson

      Too bad, prayer doesn't work.

      September 23, 2010 at 2:31 pm |
  15. Benjamin

    Amazing how in this article, from one paragraph to the next, skipped over 21 years in a fallacious attempt to impute this abuse by one priest onto Ratzinger. Ratzinger was notified of the abuse in 1996, 2 years before Fr. Wright died. This article is fallacious and not credible.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
    • David Johnson

      The article said, "Kohut was not alone. From 1950 to 1974 the headmaster of St. Johns, Father Lawrence C. Murphy, r aped and m olested as many as 200 deaf boys"

      Come on! This is too much! Where was god, while these children were being attacked?

      I ask my usual question: How would this situation been different, if there were no god?

      September 23, 2010 at 2:29 pm |
  16. April

    Secret trial? Arrest the Pope!

    September 23, 2010 at 2:25 pm |
  17. Hmmmmm

    I'm wondering how you sui some one that basically has no money of his own. He has no salary, although, of course, as the Pope of the entire church all his needs are met. Further, he does not personally own any of the possessions of the Church, he is no more than their caretaker. So he doesn't actually "have" any money, nor could he liquidate the church's possessions, as the steward of Christ, he only administers them.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:24 pm |
    • Zaidi

      A plaintiff motivation for suing doesn't necessarily have to do with renumeration; it can be for getting the truth out. This makes the plaintiff's case all the more sincere and just.

      September 23, 2010 at 3:39 pm |
  18. Barack

    Will he be signing his testimony to depict what supposedly happened to him as he attempts to sue the Pope? Interesting.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:12 pm |
  19. bakergc

    How about giving us some names out there. May be you can't put them in Jail, but you can expose them for what they are. Plublic shame is a form of punishment. Let us know who these senators and assembly folks are so they can be questioned on their decisions. If we don't expose them, we can't question them. So sick of this organized crime bs in the churches and gov.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:11 pm |
  20. claybigsby

    @Jennifer Justice, the 10% that dont believe dont think that we know everything. That is impossible for man to know everything. Yes I have studied the bible, I had to for theology 101. Its nothing but a book of stories and poems that were written by 30+ different men over the period of 1500 years. you said, "It's blatantly obvious that the vast majority of those who defy Christianity do so do to their OWN shame and guilt and are simply rejecting God due to fear of being rejected by Him." well i will counter by saying that the majority of people who believe christianity do so because of the fear of death. Christianity uses the fear mongering technique and uses it well. why else would you indoctrinate children at such a young age using fear as the primary focus? because a child's mind is so easily manipulated. Im not trying to deny anything to you. you can believe what you want. im just stating my opinion. you said "Pedophiles hiding behind Catholic robes are no different than pedophiles hiding behind a teacher's desk or as a YMCA swim coah." uhhhh yes there is a HUGE difference. they are controlling your faith, not teaching you how to swim.

    Have you ever thought, that maybe, just maybe, everything in this universe is not as cut and dry as good vs evil, right vs. wrong, god or no god. have you ever thought, maybe this persons view could be correct? the answer to all of those questions is no, because you are BRAINWASHED into thinking that your view is the only and correct view. just to let you know, before you go off calling me atheist, cause, you know, its easy to label someone as atheist because they dont believe in your god, i do believe in a higher power. Just not one based around fear and money.

    September 23, 2010 at 2:10 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.