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. HA HA HA

    You are all so dumb we have people trying to assume they know Muslim or assume they know what it means to be a Catholic or a Christian for that matter! When if they did they would realise they have know depth on reality let alone religion! But that is fine I don't need you, the pope, or anyone else to have a relationship with God

    September 23, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • Wow.

      Start a relationship with punctuation and spell check.

      September 23, 2010 at 1:48 pm |
  2. Texas

    The Catholic Church should be ashamed of themselves. This is what happens when the church does not fully understand the finished work of Christ...the New Covenant as outlined in Hebrews 8 and 10. Unfortunately the Catholic Chruch preaches and hold people under bondage under the teaching of the 'Law' instead of Grace. When operating under the 'Law' they will be judged by the 'Law'. You can't operate under the 'Law' and also claim you are under the New Covenant.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:04 am |
    • Chelsea

      Why the catholic church?? It wasn't the entire churches fault just one pervert guy. Not the entire catholic church.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:21 am |
    • Ben

      The Catholic church teaches a lot of false doctrine. No one should be a part of the Catholic Church if they intend on being saved. Personal relationship with Jesus Christ with the help of a non-denominational church is the way to go!

      September 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
    • Vince

      So Chelsea... when the Church turned a blind eye to this man's abuse and allowed him to continue on as a child molesting priest they deserve no blame? How does that work? They covered up for a child molester and left him in a position where he could continue to abuse even more children. Why do you support a church that would do that to the most vulnerable in our society?

      September 23, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
    • CatholicMom


      Which doctrine are you referring to?

      September 23, 2010 at 7:53 pm |
  3. Faithfully Independent

    I'm a devout non-denominational christian with athiestic leanings and I'm not about to cast a broad brush that paints catholocism as evil and wrong because of a few twisted perverts. But I am willing to denounce leaders of any organzation, faith or group that was a material accomplice to criminal behavior as a liar, fake and hypocrit deserving of banishment.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:03 am |
    • Matt

      "A few perverts..." .... uh, I think we passed the "few" marker a couple decades ago.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  4. Mary

    I have great sympathy for the victims. However, I think that this case is not only an attack on the Vatican but an attack on all of our organizational and child welfare laws. When we attack the Vatican's canon law procedures, we are attacking our own. As a social worker I cannot discuss the cases, they are not publicized. If I don't have the evidence, I can't do anything. It is a sick and terrible feeling. Even if I have the evidence, the legal system often cannot take the case all the way. What makes the paper is not the whole story of a case and if someone is innocent – it will ruin an innocent person's life. I find it sad that Mr. Anderson in his quest not only exploits victims, he exploits the rest of us and the very ideas that support our own legal processes and procedures.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:02 am |
  5. John Yang

    All I can say is "SICK." That man is SICK, the church is Sick, and the POPE himself is SICK. I wish justice is served and the POPE get lock up for knowing this cause from day one but did nothing about it.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  6. candy

    Who am i 2 judge a man for what crime they commit? It's up 2 God 2 give the final judgement. Evil exists in this human being called the Pope, whom he wears a crown like sum kind of king and has a whole nation on their knees giving him praise when they, including him, should be praising God, How dare u? Lord please bless the ignorant

    September 23, 2010 at 11:01 am |
    • Boxcarmike

      Hey Candy.....does your religion forbid you to write the word "To"?.....or should I say.....does UR Religion forbid you 2 write the word 2?

      September 23, 2010 at 11:21 am |
    • Posh-Kenneth

      @candy- you pedophile lover. Gross.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:13 pm |
    • Vince

      So in your weird world Candy, we would have no laws? We would not punish child molesters or murderers? We should just let God deal with them? You are naive and totally bizarre.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:34 pm |
  7. panda

    jesus isn't comming! he's here! he's making burritos at the corner of slauson and paramount ca lmfao

    September 23, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  8. gmak

    If there was a "GOD" wouldn't this being strike down this evil doer and save all these kids from getting molested? Oh wait, he must have been on break for those 20+ years.
    Must be nice to sin all you want and then repent. All is forgiven and go to heaven.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  9. Jon

    Well, he will be damned!! I have high detest for pedophiles and they're not welcome here, anywhere on Earth. Period. I don't care if pedophile repented or not, because they will do it over and over and over, non-stop. It's an addiction that needs to be purged!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  10. sf

    Why is a man who is a priest permitted to live his life out in peace just because he is in his 70's and in poor health? He is a brutal rapist. He should have lived out his remaining years in prison. Being a priest in no way should have given him a free pass. Shame on the present pope for allowing that to happen. Shame, shame , shame on all involved.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:00 am |
  11. Suz

    Glad to hear that Kohut and others are taking the Catholic Church to task. I'm not anti-faith by any means, but the ridiculous way the upper eschelons of the Church have protected these monstrous people who have abused children (priests AND nuns!!) deserves to be fully exposed and seen for what it really is: the most massive cover-up by the most powerful organized crime ring in history.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:00 am |
    • Cecilia Welsh

      What's more sickening...the abuse itself or the cover-up???

      September 23, 2010 at 12:48 pm |
  12. Milton

    Why CNN and critics blaming Pope? Why can't you go and ask those Priests and put them behind bars. It is like one of us make a mistake at overseas and those guys are suing our President. Does it make sense? This blind man or his Lawyer need some money and easy way of making money is suing Pope or Catholic Church.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:00 am |
    • sammy1974

      CNN is not blaming anyone. CNN is reporting the facts of this man's story. And, he is not blind, he is deaf.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:19 pm |
    • Vince

      Get your head out of the sand fool. Cardinal Ratzinger (today's Pope) decided to NOT go after this priest and instead just relocate him to a remote parish where he continued his abuse of children. So YES he is responsible. And even if he was not involved, he is still the head of the church and is responsible whether he likes it or not.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • Peacemaker

      Milton, I suggest you inform yourself before you defend Ratzinger who was in charge of Priests; go to the web site votf.org (Voice of the Faithful) and learn about how Ratzinger received complaints and knew about abusers only to protect the abuser at the expense of the victim!

      There is NO excuse that Ratzinger can give me, that will make me have an ounce of respect for this vile man! He should step down!

      September 23, 2010 at 3:23 pm |
  13. Ben

    Dear CNN,

    A story about a deaf man "breaking his silence". Weak.


    September 23, 2010 at 11:00 am |
    • sammy1974

      That's all you can say about this story?? Now that's weak. You took the headline very literally.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  14. james

    All you idiots who say jesus did not start chritianity is fooling themselves. Jesus did start christianity and that is a fact. Thats why this world is so messed up because of non believers who force their nonbeliefs on other people and allowing gays to marry and other satanic laws. God help us all for not following his laws and following mans satanic laws

    September 23, 2010 at 11:00 am |
    • Wow.

      How exactly does one force a non-belief?

      September 23, 2010 at 12:24 pm |
    • La4life

      Right James, so Jesus started Christianity and chose it over all of the other religions. So if you're not a Christian, you're doomed? That is such an arrogant position to take and you're one of the many that have been brainwashed.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:26 pm |
    • CanUfixit

      @James. There's true christians who truly love Jesus and there's people who have been led astray with a religious spirit. Actions speak louder than words. Remember the parable of the wheat & the tares. Don't worry be happy.

      September 29, 2010 at 3:47 am |
  15. Peter

    These disgusting gay men should be put in prison for life.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:59 am |
    • The Jackdaw

      There is a large gap between Gay and Child Molester. I'm sure all gay individuals would agree.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:02 am |
    • HotAirAce

      What does this have to do with gay men? Being gay does not equal being a pedophile!!

      September 23, 2010 at 8:24 pm |
  16. kathy

    They choose saints post humously(sp?) why not de frock and dishonor this one priest , at least ?....though he be dead. Justice this side of God's judgement will never suffice for human 'ills'(what a funny term). But there IS an appointed judgement.....a RIGHTEOUS judgement by the Righteous One! Halleluia! To Him Who Was and Is and Is To Come!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:58 am |
    • CatholicMom

      If one is being accused of a crime and they are dead and cannot defend themselves....that is one thing....if one is being named a saint who would want to defend against that? We are all called to be saints.

      September 23, 2010 at 7:39 pm |
  17. UDLaw

    Catholics continue to use the argument that the priests who molest boys are just a few isolated incidents and we shouldn't condemn the catholic church for the actions of a few.......which works if the cases of molestation stop coming up. The number of cases and pedophile priests is astounding and they continue to surface. If I were a catholic I would leave the church and worship God on my own terms; if there is a God, he won't care if you're sitting in a particular building while you worship, particularly if its filled with criminals.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:57 am |
    • sammy1974

      And please note, one third of those abused by priests were GIRLS. They are forgotten.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:38 am |
    • cathgrl

      no we don't moron. we all think it's gross. just bc we're catholic doesn't mean we think this is right. no way is it an isolated incident, so quit generalizing.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:42 am |
    • Frogist

      @UDLaw: I think it is true that you cannot condemn an entire religion for the acts of the few. But I think we can condemn the Vatican and the heirarchy of the church for allowing these crimes to go unpunished. A religion and its rules is different from a church and it's followers in most other religions. I'm not sure whether that is true about Catholicism, since I haven't studied it.

      September 23, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  18. alm

    Sick Sick Sick! I am vomitting!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 10:56 am |
    • Cecilia Welsh

      Absolutely! Totally SICK!!!

      September 23, 2010 at 12:45 pm |
  19. Marilyn

    This practically makes one ill to think that these children were so abused, and not listened to, or believed. I am Catholic and it makes me want to shout out against the pope for his lack of caring for the abused boys. It is unthinkable! Shame on him and the priests who take advantage of boys – or girls – for their own satisfaction. It is repulsive.

    September 23, 2010 at 10:56 am |
  20. Juanp

    are we suppose be extra sorry because he is blind, he should have said something long ago, after forty years nothing can be proven his word against the priest. get a life man what happen to the money he already got. Does he need more money?

    September 23, 2010 at 10:56 am |
    • greebo

      You either didn't read the article or have poor comprehension skills.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:05 am |
    • Sully

      Congrats, I think you win the award for dumbest response to this article.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
    • Kate


      I'm sorry, I think you managed to land on the wrong blog here, you seem like you wanted the "I never bother reading or letting facts get in the way" blog run by Sarah Palin.

      Oh wait, sorry, I forgot – she quit running that after 2 months. My bad.

      Just sayin'

      September 23, 2010 at 7:59 pm |
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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.