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. ham

    but what good would the justice system do? the pope kinda falls into the rich famous white category and we know how "bad" they have it in the courts. the church should take responsibility for what they failed to do and take care of these monsters the old catholic way get abig wooden stake some firewood a tourch and bam problem solved

    September 24, 2010 at 2:41 am |
  2. zk


    September 24, 2010 at 2:36 am |
  3. Rangel

    Bem, e uma historia podre! E absurdo a igrje esconder tantos casos assim. E olhe que este caso explodiu! E quantos outros mais acontecem mundo afora? O papa tem culpa siim. Ele nao era papa na epoca, mas ficoui sabendo dos acontecimentos, como outros ja tomaram conheceimento antes. A igreja catolica esta perdendo fieis, seguidores e cada vez mais tende a perder. Nao somente pelos absurdos de estupros, molestadores dentro da propria igreja, como tambem subtraindo aqueles que querem orar, assistir a uma missa, etc. Voce sabia que tem muitas igreja que proibem os frequentadores de lerem as leituras da biblia durante a missa so porque nao sao casados na igreja? E que para se casarem, mesmo tenho passado por outros casamentos, podem pedirem anulacao e pagarem paraa Igreja? E ai, fica tudo resolvido. Tempo de Lutero nao acabou. A igreja peca e muito. Esconde seus podres. Deveriam ir na igreja de Sao Bento em Olinda, Brasil e averiguar quantos padres casados e com casos "escondidos". Quem e a igreja para falar de alguem? Julgar alguem? Creio que uma de suas funcoes esta noi "SERVIR" sem pedir retribuicao. No Dar apoio. Olhe, estou cada vez mais decepicionada com a igraja catolia. Vimde uma familia catolifca e sou catolica. Tenho e acredito em Deus, no seu filho Jesus Cristo. Mas minha fe depende somente de mim, porque se dependesse da igreja, ja estaria enterrada a muito tempo! Chega! Nao estou aqui para julgar, mas que eles deveriam pagar por todas as vitimas que existiram e exitem e nao somente expulsar estes molestadores ,como cuidarem de seus casos como casos criminais. Tenho coisa demais para falar e paro por aqui.

    September 24, 2010 at 2:29 am |
  4. Retribution

    Dig him up and defrock him in a very public ceremony. Then roll him over shove a stick of dynamite in his ass and send him to hell.

    September 24, 2010 at 1:14 am |


    September 24, 2010 at 12:23 am |
  6. dtrain

    i hope this buries the church once and for all

    September 24, 2010 at 12:03 am |
    • cassie

      dtrain. I hate to disappoint you but you will be long dead and gone and the church will still live on.

      September 25, 2010 at 8:13 pm |
  7. SecularHumanistTurnedCatholic

    I simply hope that this report is balanced, displays the facts, and attempts to lay off the bias (for either side). Of course, I wonder why the Commercial segment made it seem as if the Pope had known this was going on for a grand total of 50 years, while he was still teaching theology classes in Tubingen and Bonn. (At least this article clears that up.)

    I also wonder if they'll bring up the Kiesle case (the differences between a laicization and a dispensation: sure lets Reward the paedophile by giving him a dispensation that'll let him receive the sacrament of matriomony), or not. And if they (or anyone else) will explain why a case in Austrailia (I believe?) regarding the molestation of choristers was suddenly dropped from the news when the press realized that it was not a priest being accused, but a choir director.

    I also wonder if they'll state how the meeting that had Murphy as the subject was headed by Cardinal Bertone (not Ratzinger), or how the CDF itself Couldn't have defrocked him for paedophilia. It was not under their purview till 2001, three years after Murphy died. Honestly, the case should have been brought to the Roman Rota, or the Apostolic Signatura; though that does make me wonder why it wasn't. I also wonder if they'll point out that Murphy was still on trial when he died.

    I would still like to express my dissatisfaction with the handling of these cases. The trials were slow and arduous, though at least now any credible accusations are enough to get a priest suspended from ministry and put on trial. I want to know why the Rota wasn't involved. I sincerely hope all these paedophiles will be struck out of the Church, the school systems, and the government. I also hope that the victims of such abuse will be given some recompense, no matter how meagre in comparison to the crimes they have suffered. I wish them the best.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:45 pm |
  8. cassie

    I did post a comment. It was mostly factual and not a rant. And you said it was "under moderation" or some such.
    What was athe problem? Write me at my email address.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:10 pm |
  9. Guy

    Just to put this out there the pope is only infallible after becoming pope and even then he is only infallible on matters of spirituality...and this was a worldly matter... so stop attacking the "infallibility aspect" of the popes position....However i do believe he should have taken further action against the priest

    September 23, 2010 at 10:45 pm |
    • HotAirAce


      Are you serious? A priest, who at least looked the other way as other priests bu-gg-ered defenseless children and he becomes infallible because a bunch of other priests, who probably did their share of child a-b-u-s-e, elects him as pope-a-dope!!!??!!! I strongly suggest your head is so far up your a-s-s that your brain is not functioning. I've recently determined that catholics are *the* most delusional religous fools possible! Are you married to CatholicMom? The truth *will* set you free and the truth is THERE ARE NO GODS – NOT 1!!!

      September 24, 2010 at 11:06 am |
  10. Mel

    It's an act of moral cowardice to accuse a man who's dead.
    Why did he have to wait after he died?

    September 23, 2010 at 10:44 pm |
    • Kate


      It's an act of hypocrisy to accuse the victim, instead of a pedophile priest and the mechanism that protected the creature, or moral cowardice. Read the article – it was brought up long before "now", it was dropped because the pedophile priest wanted to die with his name intact, and the Catholic Church wanted him to die with theirs intact too.

      Just disgusted

      September 23, 2010 at 11:57 pm |
  11. DominusDigum




    A priest at ordination becomes configured to Jesus Christ as in Persona Christi. This is called Holy Orders and is a Sacrament. Reconciliation/Confession is another Sacrament. When we confess our sins to a priest we are verbalizing our sins [because the Bible says to confess our sins to one another]: James 5: 16 ‘Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed….’ This is one reason Martin Luther wanted the book of James thrown out….he did not like confession!

    A priest who has sin on his soul can still administer Sacraments and the Sacraments are valid. Holy Matrimony, Baptism, so on, are valid. When we hear that we have receive absolution from our sins, it is not the priest who is absolving us but Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is our high priest and ordained priests help Him carry on His Priesthood

    LOL@ This is one reason Martin Luther wanted the book of James thrown out….he did not like confession! No wonder, he was probably afraid of getting "touched"
    Yea confess your sins to one another.....Good! Now for Penance, Pull down your pants

    September 23, 2010 at 10:41 pm |
  12. Arcflash

    " 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. "

    What ever happened to the District Attorney and Chief of Police in Milwaukee? Why did they not do thier jobs? If they would have investigated the crime they could have arrested the headmaster of St. Johns, Father Lawrence C. Murphy and then have been able to provide prove to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who lived in Europe at the time to bring justice down on Lawrence C. Murphy and give relief to the Victims.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:38 pm |
  13. Mel

    I have a question....why wasn't he charged back when he was alive, before he died? Or is it a white, anglosaxon protestant practice to accuse people only after they die? I mean, this case would be much stronger were he alive and confessing. He would be alive to receive punishment.....isn't it curious that the most cases are in countries with a traditional hatred of Catholicism? Ah, that explains it....
    I'm not going to dignify your replies with so much as a blink...bye-bye!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:36 pm |
  14. ThePope

    Hmmm.. CatholicMom is really silent tonight......wonder why? Probably hiding like the priests and pope she loves so much,lol.
    Guess what?????????? They EXIST! They are real.....Thjey are Guilty as Sin! Awww, now I see....she is too Embarassed to speak up now!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:18 pm |
  15. ThePope


    Believe me, I am a member of this church. The majority of us, are not in denial..... we are SICK and DISGUSTED! Millions of us are working to CHANGE THE CHURCH, we can not CHANGE the church by leaving. We stay because we love the FAITH......... NOT the hierarchy!

    There are over one billion Catholics in the World, MOST of us are working for change and we DEMAND that Ratzinger STEP UP AND TELL THE TRUTH!

    It is so good to hear a Catholic express what you have! I am sick of the ones that proclaim that the Pope and anything the Catholic Church does is "without spot, stain or wrinkle",,,
    There is one CatholicMom, who thinks that they can do no wrong. I notice she was on these threads here, and posted a one liner.
    I wonder where she is now...all of a sudden she is silent! Could it be to embarrassing now to tell us how her pope and the Catholic church can do no wrong? She says she "loves" her pope...how? If she says that, I wonder if she hates his "sin" (protecting child molesters)
    ComeOut CatholicMom..tell us how the Infallible Pope and the Holy Fathers, are without sin.......and how much you "love" them.

    At least come and tell us you would like to see them punished for thier crimes!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:09 pm |
  16. up2u

    It's pretty simple: all religions based on a divine being were created to control the masses by creating fear of the afterlife. The only protection from that dreaded fate is a "fire insurance" policy, conveniently available only through your local church, synagogue, mosque or whatever. The "premiums" collected from all those gullible lambs clamoring for salvation perpetuate the religious Enterprise. But look closely at the terms of your policy: the Enterprise reserved the right to cancel your coverage at any time, so keep your rational thinking to yourself and be content with the make-believe that has nourished for centuries all those who came before you. And leave the housekeeping (all those unpleasant little details like pedophilia) to the agents who sell those insurance policies.

    September 23, 2010 at 9:59 pm |
  17. makgroom

    The buck stops at the doorstep of the Vatican. This law suit could be the beginning of an avalanche of law suits, possibly a world wide class action suit. The RC Church has taken and taken and now it's time to give back. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see the Vatican become bankrupt repaying its alleged victims of abuse.

    September 23, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
  18. Run4hilS

    @David Johnson
    Your comparisons of God to the easter bunny and the tooth fairy are typical responses from atheists.
    Atheists and science can't prove that God doesn't exist. Where is your hard evidence? Wouldn't such evidence jolt the world to its foundations??
    Christians can't prove that God exists. This is why it is called faith. I can admit that I don't have all of the answers wrt to God, can you?

    September 23, 2010 at 9:48 pm |
  19. up2u

    It's pretty simple: all religions based on a devine being were created to control the masses by creating a fear of what awaits the unfaithful in the afterlife. The only protection from that dreaded fate is a "fire insurance" policy, conveniently available only through the church, synagogue, mosque or whatever. The proceeds from all those gullible lambs clamoring for salvation fuel the perpetuatuation of the whole religious enterprise. But look closely at the terms of your policy: the Enterprise reserves the right to cancel your coverage at any time, so keep the rational thinking to yourself and content youself with the make-believe that has nourished those believers that came before you for centuries. And trust the housekeeping (all those unpleaseant little details like pedophilia) to the agents who sell those insurance policies.

    September 23, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  20. JenniPoohBear

    Hey Pope B., how's that "cover up the abuse and shove the victims under the rug, while allowing abuse to continue unstopped" plan working out for you now? You're such a HYPOCRITE! The only thing you cared about at all was getting to your pope-dom, so by the gods....save the church so that can happen, right? You should be thrown in prison for being an accomplice to r@pe and child abuse. How many of your "sheep" are standing with you now? They're jumping ship like rats on a sinking vessel. You get that?!? Your own members are turning on you because you turned your back when your God would have expected you to stand up and protect his innocents. Personally, I hope you rot in YOUR h**l.

    September 23, 2010 at 9:37 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.