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. Teresa

    Let them get married. Maybe this will stop.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:55 am |
    • CatholicMom

      Pedophiles who are married still abuse children.

      Priests are married…married to the Church. Through the Sacrament of Holy Orders they are now Jesus Christ’s priests as in Persona Christi. Jesus Christ is our high priest…He still is a priest through His ordained priests. His Bride is the Catholic Church; He only Has One Bride. This is another reason why women should not try to become priests…they as women, cannot be configured to Jesus, a man, the Son of God, not the daughter of God.

      September 23, 2010 at 9:37 pm |
  2. george

    If any of the allegations are true, Murphy burns in hell as we speak! Ratzinger may not be far behind, by the looks of things.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  3. KTB

    Put aside the fact that it is a priest. It is someone who abuses their power on vulnerable children. Happens all the time. Makes me sick.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:54 am |
    • KTB

      But if this had been a regular Joe off the street, he probably would have been lynched. Because he was a priest he hid behind the holy frock. Cardinal Ratzinger and his team swept it under the rug and kept it quiet. Perhaps he should serve the sentence of the pedophile he covered for.

      September 23, 2010 at 12:00 pm |
  4. peg

    200+ deaf boys were the victims. The criminal never faced justice; other criminals covered for him. The pope should do jail time and coffers of Vatican City should be emptied so that all victims of priests may be compensated for their pain and suffering.

    This kind of thing - nothing new, in spite of how horrific the abuse of disabled children is - is why I can’t embrace or support the Catholic Church. My instinct to seek escape began when I learned that only men could become priests. I was about 9 years old. I don’t recall being abused but they say people block those memories to survive, as adults.

    Is it fair to say, "GAME OVER!" to the old men of Rome?

    September 23, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  5. Joe Public

    Everyone of the victims or their surviving family members should be suing the Pope and his organization. His excuse of ignorance of teh activities is a feeble cop-out.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  6. Joe

    I guess he didn't hear him coming.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  7. jared

    what a suprise, the church is a joke and should be look upon negatively. As a society, we need to move away from this stone age religions. The church should be forced to pay heavy fines to each and everyone involved in this school. And the Pope should be FORCED to atleast come out and publicly comment on this, if he wants to remain credible (though most people agree, the church is a joke)

    September 23, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  8. scott

    i think this lawsuite should persue and those victims recieve justice and the pope should be questioned intentively

    September 23, 2010 at 11:51 am |
  9. Oneday

    God does exist and one day you will see Him and then you will have your proof. It upsets me that people disect every little thing and say it doesn't exist becasue you can't see it. You can't see the wind but we know it is real when we see the trees move as it blows and feel it on our face. You can't see love but you feel it when your baby says it for the first time. Even if you do not believe in God, He is there. He is in the wars that our soldiers are facing everyday and he is there with the soldiers holding the bloody hand of their fellow man with shots ringing out past his ears. When that soldiers looks into his eyes I believe he sees God and with his final breath lets go of the soldier's hand and grabs hold of God's. Do not say that the Bible is just a book. It is the living word and one they carry in their bags every single day and hold tight to with the letters of their loved one tucked inside. The United States was fonded on the Bible and on God. When the Towers went down prayers went up and they were heard. God was with our loved ones in those towers. I promise you that one day you will wish you did not dismiss God. We are not perfect and never will be but the blood of my Savior Jesus Christ covers me and will never wash off and one day I will rejoice with him. He is here and he does hold me even if I can not see Him. Like it or not he is with you too!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • jared

      lol jesus

      September 23, 2010 at 11:52 am |
    • sammy1974

      OneDay: Believe what you want. But please do not tell others what to believe. There is no one "true" religion or spiritual belief. You cannot tell people what they should feel or think. It is none of your business.

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

      Sammy1974: Actually, we can, and the Christian God is the one true god. Our job is to spread that message to all who believe in other (wrong) gods or religions. It is not glorifying to God if we just allow others to believe what they want. That is doing Him a great disservice as He loves us all so much and wants a relationship with us.

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

      wow, Ben . . . no, you really CAN'T tell me what to believe. You can tell me what *you* believe and it's perfectly fine if what you believe is different than what *I* believe. That's the difference between your religion and mine (Judaism) . . . I recognize your right to believe differently than I do. What if *you're* wrong and *I'm* right?

      September 24, 2010 at 2:15 pm |
  10. Peggy

    Exactly how times does this church have to EXPOSED? Power to this man. I only I wish I could live to see the day where organized religion is ancient history.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:50 am |
    • jared

      i wish i could like this but...


      September 23, 2010 at 11:53 am |
  11. JR


    September 23, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  12. AJ

    only way to bring down the Catholic church is to stop supporting it, and that will never happen. It’s like everyone boycotting gas. There are some of us who see its destructive nature, those who are too ignorant too, and those who are to scared or lazy to act.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  13. NICK


    September 23, 2010 at 11:49 am |
    • CatholicMom


      Pedophiles who marry abuse children. If you think not…listen to the victims of uncles, grandpas, fathers…etc.

      September 23, 2010 at 9:20 pm |
    • naanaa

      I agree Nick. Catholic mom, you're a bigot. You are totally dismissing the abuse this man went through. You're brain washed.

      September 24, 2010 at 9:55 pm |
  14. DG

    benedict should be defrocked - in public– and murphy's body thrown out of the grave. let the dogs eat him.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:48 am |
  15. NICK


    September 23, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  16. David

    The Pope has shifty eyes. I don't trust him at all. If he's guilty, he needs to resign, and then go and burn with other monster, Fr. Murphy.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  17. Al Gonz

    wow... pedophilia is a crime and hate also... bunch of haters here. impressed!

    September 23, 2010 at 11:47 am |
    • Petel2

      It is good people who are angry; The victims their families and others who cared for children. You comment is pure nonsense.
      Children's lives destroyed, many committed suicide.
      Check out the effects on society @childrecsuebill.org

      September 23, 2010 at 11:54 am |
  18. DG

    Benedict should be defrocked and murphy thrown out of his grave. let the dogs eat him.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:47 am |
  19. Angela

    But by golly, you better eat fish on fridays during Lent or you will be a disgrace to your religion..... what a joke.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:43 am |
    • CatholicMom


      Have you ever considered sacrificing for Jesus? When we ‘give up something’ with the thought that this will help us recall the Sacrifice Jesus made for us….it is merely a way of bringing Jesus to our mind. Now, we can and should still sacrifice on our own….any day…it doesn’t have to be Friday, but use it to bring to mind what Jesus did. Remember Good Friday?….that is why Friday was used.

      September 23, 2010 at 9:13 pm |
  20. m.24.m

    Not all Muslim's are Terrorist, Not all Christian or Catholics are Rapist. The world needs to get rid of right-wingers who create fear to keep us in their control. Especially now days, the American Society is acting like the Nazi's towards their muslim citizens.

    September 23, 2010 at 11:42 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.