Crime and Justice

Orphanage survivors want state to repeal time limit for filing lawsuits

Burlington’s former St. Joseph’s Orphanage, which housed children from 1854 to 1974. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Former residents of Burlington’s shuttered St. Joseph’s Orphanage are asking the state government to repeal its six-year time limit for filing lawsuits against those who mistreated them decades ago.

“We acknowledge no one can give us back our childhood, take away the pain and shame we endured, nor untangle the mental and physical struggles many of us have had to deal with in our adult lives,” they said in a collective statement. “However, we can and will hold those accountable.”

Some 30 survivors issued the call in response to this week’s conclusion of a two-year government investigation of past problems at the orphanage, which housed more than 13,000 children from 1854 to 1974.

“It’s clear that abuse did occur at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, and that many children suffered,” Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said when he released the 286-page report sparked by a 2018 BuzzFeed News story headlined “We Saw Nuns Kill Children.”

The attorney general’s office, teaming with local and state police and prosecutors, confirmed BuzzFeed’s claims of “unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children” previously reported in a series of well-publicized lawsuits in the 1990s. It couldn’t, however, find evidence of murder.

Although the state can’t press criminal charges because the accusations are too old, it’s supporting the St. Joseph’s Orphanage Restorative Inquiry — a new initiative of the city of Burlington’s Community Justice Center — to collect and share stories to promote “accountability, amends-making, learning and change.”

“Life was unthinkable for thousands of children placed in that orphanage,” survivors said in a statement. “We were beaten with rods, locked in dark closets and trunks, and forced to eat our own vomited food. Some were sexually molested, this by the same people professing to be agents of God.”

The group will seek face-to-face meetings with representatives of the building’s longtime owners at the Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese and operators at the Montreal-based Sisters of Providence.

“They are responsible for what happened to us and to those who could not speak for themselves,” survivors said in their statement. “We want an acknowledgement that what we say happened to us did indeed happen — and a sincere apology.”

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The state Department for Children and Families has already accepted a request to talk.

In addition, former residents want records shared with investigators but so far withheld from them, financial reparations to pay for therapy, and some sort of monument recognizing their years at the orphanage.

They also are reaching out to state legislators to request a change in the time limit for filing court cases.

Last year the Legislature, responding to a Vermont Catholic priest misconduct scandal, repealed the deadline for introducing civil actions involving child sex abuse. But that change pertains only to molestation and not other misconduct, which currently must be reported within six years upon realization the mistreatment caused personal harm.

“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.”

More than 100 former residents waived their rights to file civil lawsuits when the Vermont diocese paid them $5,000 each in the 1990s, while 28 others took orphanage overseers to court. At least one settled for a “significant” undisclosed sum 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 their own series of clergy misconduct lawsuits, starting in the 2000s, have had more legal success. The diocese has paid $35 million in settlements to more than 50 accusers over the past quarter-century. The state’s largest religious denomination sold its 32-acre Burlington headquarters on Lake Champlain, which included the orphanage building, to pay the settlements.

At an online press conference Wednesday, a dozen survivors shared their continued frustration with religion and government institutions.

“They believe that they’re not responsible for anything that happened — it’s, ‘Oh, well, it was just so many years ago now that we might just as well forget it,’” former resident Walter Coltey said. “Well, I got news for them. This group is not going to forget it.”

“Our main goal,” Coltey said, “is for this to never, and I mean never, happen to another child.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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