Crime and Justice

Vermont review of church orphanage finds misconduct but not murder

An outdoor bronze sculpture of two children with fishing poles sits outside Burlington’s former St. Joseph’s Orphanage. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

A two-year investigation of past problems at Burlington’s shuttered St. Joseph’s Orphanage — sparked by a 2018 BuzzFeed News story headlined “We Saw Nuns Kill Children” — has confirmed a history of child abuse but concluded with no criminal charges of murder.

“It’s clear that abuse did occur at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, and that many children suffered,” Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said Monday upon releasing a 286-page report. “But we have found that there is no credible evidence to suggest that a murder occurred.”

The Attorney General’s Office teamed with local and state police and prosecutors after reading BuzzFeed claims that not only recounted previously reported “unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children” but also revealed a few deadly allegations not documented in a series of well-publicized lawsuits in the 1990s.

Investigators spoke with many former residents who still remember being shouted at, slapped, shut in closets or sexually abused at the orphanage, which housed more than 13,000 children from its opening in 1854 to its closing in 1974.

“Allegations were made by many survivors, but these allegations were never investigated when they should have been investigated at the time,” Donovan said. “That has been a failure of the state criminal justice system. As a result, for many of these cases, there is a lack of corroborating evidence.”

In addition, authorities couldn’t confirm BuzzFeed’s claims by a now-deceased resident who said she saw a boy fall under the surface of Lake Champlain and not come up, a second who was accidentally electrocuted and a third who, according to her memory, was thrown out of a fourth-floor window to his death.

“He kind of hit, and — ” the late Sally Dale was quoted by writer Christine Kenneally. “And then he laid still.”

The BuzzFeed story pointed out some of the challenges present-day investigators have faced. Dale figured the window incident took place three-quarters of a century ago because she remembered moving to the “big girls” dormitory that day, which would have made her age 6 and the year 1944. She also recalled only two people there, herself and an unidentified nun who reportedly told Dale she had a vivid imagination.

“As with any cold case, the more time that passes between a crime and its investigation, the more likely it is that evidence will get corrupted or lost, that details will blur, that witnesses will die,” Kenneally wrote in the story. “In the end, I was not able to find any other witnesses or documents to confirm the story of the falling boy. It was the word of Sally Dale against the word of the church.”

Although the state can’t press criminal charges, it’s supporting a new restorative justice effort to allow former orphanage residents to speak with religious and government leaders.

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan speaks at a podium in 2018 to announce an investigation of past child abuse by Vermont Catholic Church personnel. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“It is my hope that through a restorative process,” Donovan said, “we can bring peace, we can bring justice, we can bring reconciliation for so many of these survivors who still struggle today.”

‘Sins of the past’

Vermont authorities faced a torrent of questions about the BuzzFeed article once media outlets ranging from National Public Radio to USA Today began repeating its claims in the summer and fall of 2018. Within weeks, Donovan and other state and local authorities launched their investigation.

Monday’s outcome didn’t surprise longtime observers of Vermont’s Catholic Church, which could share a roster of the children who lived at the orphanage but has no records for any workers, as the facility was managed by the Montreal-based Sisters of Providence.

In a statement, the Sisters — who didn’t give requested documents to authorities — said although they “feel great sorrow as we read the report,” the review “seeks to impose a present-day legal framework, resources and disciplinary practices upon a very different era.”

“The report focuses on those who allege hardship,” the Sisters continued. “It is mute on the important role of religious institutions in rearing and caring for orphaned children.”

That said, the Sisters downplayed their role.

“Primary responsibility for the operations and functioning of the orphanage fell to the priests and bishop of the Vermont Catholic Diocese,” the Sisters said in their statement. “Various state of Vermont and municipal regulators also had responsibility for ensuring the well-being of the children.”

The church, for its part, expressed responsibility and regret.

“The diocese continues to accept its full share of the blame for any sins of the past,” it said in a statement. “We apologize for all hurt caused and for the personal shortcomings of human beings that came before us.”

The state’s largest religious denomination gave former Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell clergy misconduct files in 2002 after The Boston Globe uncovered decades of unreported sexual abuse allegations against priests in the Massachusetts capital. The Globe would win a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts.

Sorrell, who made headlines 18 years ago by calling for a Vermont investigation similar to Donovan’s, never charged anyone criminally because claims found credible were too old to prosecute under the state’s statute of limitations at the time.

Last year the Vermont Legislature repealed the deadline for introducing civil actions involving child sex abuse. But that change pertains only to molestation and not other misconduct.

“The statute of limitations is almost certain to bar any claims for physical or emotional abuse,” said Burlington attorney Jerome O’Neill, who has represented nearly all of the people who have filed lawsuits against the diocese. “It is only claims for sexual abuse at the orphanage that might be viable at this point.”

‘Can never apologize enough’

All accusers are free to file civil lawsuits or seek financial settlements. Back in the 1990s, the Vermont diocese offered orphanage residents $5,000 each to waive their right to further legal action. As many as 160 pursued the deal and more than 100 accepted payment, according to past news reports.

In addition, 28 former residents took orphanage overseers to court in the 1990s. At least one settled for a “significant” undisclosed amount of money, but others dropped their cases when a judge ruled they couldn’t receive church letters documenting their abuse or band together in a consolidated trial.

Former Vermont altar boys who filed a second string of clergy misconduct lawsuits in the 2000s have found more legal success.

Burlington’s former St. Joseph’s Orphanage was open from 1854 to 1974. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

The diocese has paid $35 million in settlements for more than 50 Vermont accusers over the past quarter-century. To help fund that sum, the diocese sold its 32-acre Burlington headquarters on Lake Champlain, which included the orphanage building.

O’Neill has settled four more lawsuits in the past year and has eight other cases pending, including one involving a former orphanage resident sexually abused by the late priest Michael Madden, who was charged with a string of improprieties during a two-decade career in Burlington, Barton, Colchester, St. Johnsbury, Stowe and Waitsfield.

Vermont’s Catholic Church, in response, has introduced a series of reforms.

The diocese released a lay committee’s report last year revealing it knew at least 40 Vermont priests — about 10% of all the state’s Catholic clergy since 1950 — faced accusations of sexually abusing children over the past seven decades but did nothing to alert the public or police.

“While most of these allegations took place at least a generation ago, the numbers are still staggering,” Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne said upon release of the report. “The victims of these priests are still bearing the wounds of what happened to them.”

Coyne has freed accusers from past nondisclosure agreements, created a “Promise to Protect” website and contracted with a mental health counselor to offer a conduit for survivors of child abuse by priests and other personnel.

“We can never apologize enough to any survivors of abuse,” the diocese said in its statement Monday. “In the end, the best apology we can make is to do everything that we can to make sure this never happens to another child in the care of the church.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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