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. Brett Favre's fan (a.k.a. ybs)

    Guess the kid turned a deaf ear to the pope & the pope returned the favor!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:42 am |
  2. The Jackdaw

    Child Molesters and other types of creeps are found everywhere. The church cannot be directly blamed for having them in their midst, but when the hierarchy covers for them by hiding the truth and making excuses, they become every bit as much to blame as the sick freaks that commit the crimes to begin with. The church is a human organization. It was founded, built, and maintained by humans and humans alone. It is subject to the same faults as humanity. It needs to be held accountable.

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

      catholicism perpetuates pedophelia. there is no doubt about it.

      September 24, 2010 at 9:51 pm |
    • CatholicMom

      The Catholic Church was founded by Jesus Christ, not man.

      September 25, 2010 at 6:43 pm |
  3. Boo :(

    the catholic church is a mutant version of christianity. If it is to continue being married should be a REQUIRED part of it. being unmarried to be pure makes no sense whatsoever.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:41 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Boo :(,

      Marriage does not make people impure.

      Priests are married to the Church as they represent Christ through Persona Christi. Jesus Christ has the Church for His Bride. Jesus Christ uses men to carry on His Priesthood.

      September 24, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  4. BillyBob

    It happened fifty years ago--I had to blink twice on that time frame-----

    September 23, 2010 at 11:40 am |
    • Petel2

      50 years ago, let me help you understand the effects of violent pedophilia. The more disgusting and violent, the longer the victim remains in a trauma- mental illness caused. Could you imagine a child ssoooddommized?? How then could you expect a small child to come to terms with it?
      You should read "Physical Changes to the Brain of a small child caused by severe trauma." Go ahead and look it up, educate yourself.
      Remember Jaycee? the 29 year old woman we found not to long ago? She was abducted at age 11. Some say that if we didn't find her, she may have been 50 or 60 before coming forward. Same with the 15 year old Missouri boy. Both had every opportunity to escape and ask for help, but didn't. It was not the physical captivity, but the mental one This is no dofferent than victims of clergy abuse.
      Now how about considering that when the child, as a later adult, wakes from the trauma, a new trauma they need to deal with – a life never lived. Could you imagine that? Now imagine being denied by the legal system and those as you?
      Finally, pedos outside the families are easier to convict and cases proved. Why? Because they average 80 victims – that's a lot of witnesses.

      September 23, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  5. Petel2

    As a victim of multiple rrrapppes and sssoooddomiesfrom ages 8 to 10 in New York State, once a gang sodomy by 4 priests and one a bishop today, I find it remarkable that people actually support this religion. It is not just this pope who lies and deceives us, but popes in the past as well.
    When will people stop believing their lies????

    September 23, 2010 at 11:40 am |
    • naanaa

      Petel2, I'm sorry that happened to you. You did not deserve that either. May God somehow, some way heal your wound.

      September 24, 2010 at 9:46 pm |
  6. MJ in ATL

    The era of theocratic dogma and social marginalization at the hands of “peaceful” religions is over. The pedestal which the Catholic Church has long dictated from is crumbling…and through those cracks the light shall enter and expose its filth and corruption. The world will never know the true scope of atrocities committed over the ages by the Papacy, but it can prevent the poisonous vine of the “Holy Seed” from perverting society any further.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:40 am |
  7. ray

    This story to a sure that all religons have mold, and some religons had added to what God had said in there book and asumed that God have this and that and continued to live there life in a lie some king or some authurity did thousends of yours ago......

    September 23, 2010 at 11:37 am |
  8. bobaloo

    The pope is caught laundering 50 million. Th' queen needs a bail out..help!
    More tax money for the Bankers. Reverend Longo is drivin a Bentley.
    Hundreds of letters between the queen and her government show the royal family's appeals for financial help.
    After one exchange the government gave the queen two million pounds to help "cash-flow problems" covering the expenses of Queen Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Philip.
    Republic, a campaign group calling for the abolition of the monarchy, said the figures again proved the need for a "full public review of royal finances."
    "The British taxpayer is not the personal piggy-bank of the Windsor family.
    We must be told whenever they dip their hands into our pockets," Freeloaders
    Why not put the pope and all these untouchables on trial? If you don't speak up you are just as guilty. This is why these things are still happenin. See Rev18-19...

    September 23, 2010 at 11:36 am |
  9. Victoria

    To Terry Kohut: Don't give up. Millions of people are on your side.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:35 am |

    See, this is just another reason I worship Zeus. You have your fake man in the sky, I have mine...

    September 23, 2010 at 11:35 am |
  11. sara

    The only purpose of all religions is to control and oppress.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:33 am |
    • Izzisgirl

      I am neither controlled nor oppressed at my synagogue.

      September 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  12. Bussman

    Great argument REVER.... my religion sucks really, really, really bad.... but hey, we aren't as bad as some others!!!!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:32 am |
  13. debbie

    All these abuses happened years and years ago, but it makes me wonder if it has really stopped? If the ones higher up continue to ignore these pleas, I can just imagine how many more new victims there are.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • sammy1974

      Debbie, It has not stopped. Victims continue to come forward, around the world, daily. Some of the reported abuse by priests happened as recently as 2009. And we know that victims typically wait many years (decades) to come forward, so we will be hearing about new victims for decades. And, many will never come forward.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:03 pm |
  14. edward f

    The nuns taught us in Catholic school that all Catholic priests were hand picked by God. This just doesn’t make sense. Why would Jesus (who is God)—and who knows the future (and what people will do and not do)—choose abusive priests to carry on his work on earth? The answer must be is that all religions are bogus. God would never allow “HIS PRIESTS” to do any harm to any of “HIS CHILDREN.” There is a reason why we are here, but we’ve yet to figure it out. Yet, we must continue to be generous and kind to all—even if there is no heaven (as we were led to believe). AMEN.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:32 am |
    • CatholicMom

      edward f,

      You mustn’t lose faith in God. We are all given a freewill and thus can fall into sin. Priests have the same concupiscence as you and I. This is another of the horrors of sin….people do harm not only to themselves but cause others to lose faith and suffer greatly.

      September 24, 2010 at 6:06 pm |
  15. Susana

    I agree that some priest and some higher authorities in the Catholic church had acted wrong and hurt people. It is disgusting and I believe they should be punish. But not all Catholics are like that and most of us are trying to help the church and believe in God's teachings. By the way the Catholic church is run by humans and all humans make mistakes.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  16. Orange Sunshyne

    This is really disgusting.
    I hope that everyone in the Catholic Church including the Pope who cover up these atocities are made to answer.
    These 200 deaf students deserve JUSTICE!
    I am glad that I am a Jew.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  17. kenneth Collins

    Catholics should demand that the pope resign. He was awre of the priests conduct yet he did nothing. Instead ignored andccovered up the bad conduct. He needs to resign .

    September 23, 2010 at 11:31 am |
  18. Orange Sunshyne

    This is really disgusting.
    I hope that everyone in the Catholic Church including the Pope who cover up these atocities are made to answer.
    These 200 deaf students deserve JUSTICE!
    I am glad that I am Jew.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:30 am |
    • Izzisgirl

      Amen, Orange. I'm glad to be Jewish, too!

      September 24, 2010 at 1:27 pm |
  19. Amado Castaneda

    Sucks for the vatican that people like that mess up religion.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  20. Car

    It's no excuse, but back years ago they hid this stuff. You never heard about it and no one ever talked about it. It was just Taboo. This doesn't make it right, but I understand how it could happen. The pope is in that age catagory where it would be very difficult I'm sure, to understand this stuff, let alone discuss it without being tempted to hide it. PS I do agree with one thing. The victims were victims, but it's very difficult to prove anything when your talking 25 or more years later. If you want justice you have to annoy people until you get it.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:28 am |
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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.