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. BD70

    To bad they cannot impeach the pope. Unbelievable....sick

    September 25, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  2. tru

    Simply disgusting.these same people go to other countries and convert people . I respect Jesus, Allah , Rama which are names of the same god.A good religion takes arguments and has scope for spiritual advancement. I wonder do any of these priests do yoga or meditation whichh are needed for spritual growth? what do they do in their past time?what is spritual growth in christianity

    any person that uses the name of god and commits a sin is devil himself. Where is law?why do people talk about africa, iraq or other countries...why don't you solve your chritianity problems first.

    September 25, 2010 at 6:38 pm |


    September 25, 2010 at 6:35 pm |
  4. Ready

    More Catholic bashing – a veiled shot at Christianity (and for sure there were problems that must find justice) – when there have been several positive Jewish articles and videos posted to CNN. Odd but routine. We all know

    September 25, 2010 at 6:32 pm |
  5. fwbear

    Kohut is a s gay as a goose. Can't anyone see that.

    September 25, 2010 at 6:26 pm |
  6. matt

    If there is anyone out there who this has happen to...COME FORWARD! I always found it weird that an unmarried priest would be guiding whole families as to how to live their lives.

    September 25, 2010 at 6:18 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      Many people need guidance and the Church is there to help; it is where we receive all our Spiritual help and that is what most people seem to be lacking in. Our minds need to be set not on the things of the world …who better to help in this area than a priest and the Church?

      September 26, 2010 at 9:19 am |
  7. He without sin cast the fisrt stone

    First of all , who are Christian ? why did Christ come to the world ? and what is the purpose of forgiveness.
    He without sin cast the fisrt StoneAs a catholic priest during confession , you are now represnting God , Confession is sacret , the priest in concern had asked for forgiiveness ,and the Church forgave him . The Church will , and is not for the righteous , that happen long ago , I'm not saying is right , if God has forgiven him for his action , then who are you ? Please read your bible , when christ said to your sin has been forgiven , go and sin no more the people then were agree ,and said , who is he( jesus) to forgive sin ,
    Is the same question being asked today . He without sin cast the fisrt stone .

    September 25, 2010 at 6:16 pm |
  8. Heli0tr0pe

    3 words: Nuke the Vatican!

    September 25, 2010 at 6:04 pm |
  9. Amica

    "spoke with his hands"!! One would never say "spoke with his mouth"! An insult. Should have been "spoke using sign language".

    September 25, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
  10. brian

    Maybe he's suing the pope because he didn't hear him right the first time when he explained his actions.

    September 25, 2010 at 5:57 pm |
  11. joel

    Children must never be alone with unsupervised adults in a church or other religious setting.

    September 25, 2010 at 5:56 pm |
  12. Petel2

    As a victim of rrraaappes and sssoddoommies from ages 8 to 10, once a gang sssooooddoommy by 4 priests – I'm asking Americans to help us expose the truth. Please demand your lawmakers and justice departments to hold this organization accountable. Right now, the RCC has the financial ability to buy those who should be helping us.
    Many mothers suffer unimaginable pain as they cry every night for their lost children who committed suicide and those mentally ill. And these mothers know the RCC denied their children. Not only does the RCC deny their children, but their lobby efforts to stop laws that would help all victims of abuse.
    The RCC doesn't care for these mothers, the children victims and only care of their own reputation. And as you can read in some posts here, there are catholics (priests likely) who would rather continue the destruction to victims lives because some victims have gained the strength to speak out.
    Please help us, we need you to demand accountability. We need your voice.

    Thank you

    September 25, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
  13. At the Name of Jesus

    The Church has lost its way because of a crisis in faith. It is no conspiracy theory to say that there are some in power within the Church that have little regard for the Word of God and do unjust things because of their own thirst for power and control. It is also safe to say that there have been many ordained into the priesthood for the wrong reasons causing an even greater lack of faith by those who witness or have been harmed by evil actions. The Church should be the beacon, the lighthouse of the Gospel. Jesus said: "But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea." – Matthew 18:6
    If only the hierarchy had faith in God, the Church would not have been a safe-haven for predators.
    All I can conclude with is a few quotes from St. John Chrysostom that helps me put this all into context:
    "The road to Hell is paved with the bones of priests and monks, and the skulls of bishops are the lamp posts that light the path."
    "I do not believe that many priests are saved; I believe the contrary, that the number of those who are damned is greater.”

    September 25, 2010 at 3:16 pm |
  14. atheistkenyan

    i thought the "don't ask don't tell" was a U.S military policy for gays, didn't know it's the same for Vatican pedophiles.

    September 25, 2010 at 9:16 am |
  15. atheistkenyan

    i thought the "don't ask don't tell" was only a U.S millitary policy for gays, didn't know its the same for Vatican pedophiles.

    September 25, 2010 at 9:14 am |
  16. The Deaf Guy

    If these Cardinals, Bishops and whoever else who selected the current Pope knew what this Cardinal Ratzinger did by burying this incident, would he be a Pope today? Those people are just a bunch of hypocrites, not practicing what they preach.

    ATTENTION CNN: Thousands of deaf people likely read the above as I am this sending this email to over 70 of my deaf friends, why isn't the video being closed captioned? There you go, CNN is just as bad as Father Murphy!

    September 25, 2010 at 9:04 am |
  17. D, Brown

    How about taking the Vatican's art treasures from it and auctioning them off I mean every sculpture and painting that is not nailed down. They don't really need them, and the money would go a long way to compensating the victims. I seem to remember Jesus saying "sell all you have and give it to the poor" in this case give it to the wounded. It would serve as a lasting reminder that this sort of behavior cannot go on. Every day the pope or a cardinal saw an empty wall or niche it would stand as mute testimony. I imagine a few Michelangelo sculptures would bring a good price. Doing this would in no way impede the Vatican from preaching the gospel or helping people. saying other churches have the same problem is no excuse.

    September 24, 2010 at 10:42 pm |
  18. naanaa

    Ken, you are a terrible person. Catholic mom...you are brainwashed by the cotholic church to believe that hogwash they indoctrinate the priest with. Married to Jesus is a term for the "church' as a whole being the bride. Even Peter was married, the first "Pope." Which true Chrisians do not believe. he was the first pope. That is heresy.

    September 24, 2010 at 10:08 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      It sounds like you have been reading anti-Catholic literature. If you have time to read, please, at least go on line and read what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about anything you question….for instance….celibacy.. Google … ‘celibacy catechism of the catholic church’. If you don’t use the full words of catechism of the catholic church, you will get a hack. Thank you!

      What the Church teaches is what I believe. It is the Church that Jesus Christ founded and it is the pillar and foundation of Truth. The Bible tells us this and why should I believe anything different?

      September 25, 2010 at 11:18 pm |
  19. deeda

    This is how the Church cleans itself out. If these horrible things are not brought to light, nothing will be done about them. Time will tell and the priest who did these crimes will be judged by God. Christ who was Innocent was crucified: the Church that is made up of sinners must go through the crucifiction also.

    September 24, 2010 at 9:40 pm |
  20. Run4hilS

    Nero was tagged as the first antichrist by the early Christians. It doesn't mean that he is the beast descibed in Revelations. Good to see you using Wiki as your source for credible information LOL. You're right – He will not come back as a baby but will as Lord Jesus. Have faith David Johnson, there is time for you to change yet.

    September 24, 2010 at 8:42 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.