Crime and Justice

Former residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage recount horrific abuse, want day in court

The former St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage in Burlington where the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington used to be headquartered. Seen on Thursday, November 14, 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Several former residents of the St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington spoke of the abuse they suffered there and urged the Legislature to eliminate the statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood physical abuse.

They would also like to see the legislation go further and allow civil claims of childhood emotional abuse. 

Linda Crossman, a member of Voices of St. Joseph’s, was among the former residents who urged expanding the legislation to include emotional abuse.

“What does it hurt?” she asked members of the Senate Judiciary Committee during a video hearing Thursday on bill S.99. “It hurts nobody. It can only help someone.”

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, the committee chair, said Thursday the panel was still working on the legislation and would continue to take testimony Friday. At a hearing last week, the committee discussed the difficulty of proving emotional abuse that took place many years ago.

The bill would do away with the current three-year statute of limitation for civil claims of childhood physical abuse. S.99 builds on legislation passed two years ago that eliminated the statute of limitations for civil claims of sex abuse. 

The bill defines childhood physical abuse as “any act committed by the defendant against a complainant who was under 18 years of age at the time of the act and which act would have constituted a violation of a statute prohibiting aggravated assault in effect at the time the act was committed.”

The statute of limitations for a criminal charge of aggravated assault is three years.

The legislation follows on years of claims of physical and sexual abuse at the Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese’s former St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, which was in operation from 1854 to 1974. 

After an investigation spanning two years, the Vermont Attorney General’s Office determined late last year that the orphanage had a long history of abuse, but no charges were brought, mostly because of the criminal statute of limitations.

However, the bill being considered now would allow those claims of childhood physical abuse to be pursued in a civil court. 

Testimony through tears

Crossman, now 69, told the committee of her own experiences at the orphanage decades ago — the physical and emotional abuse she suffered and witnessed there.

She was joined by eight other members, now in their 60s and 70s, of the Voices of St. Joseph’s, former residents of the now-shuttered orphanage. They all recounted, at times through tears, similar accounts of abuse at the hands of priests, nuns and others who worked there.

They spoke of sex acts they were forced to perform and of beatings they endured, at times for missteps as minor as not finishing a meal. They talked of being locked in closets and hearing the screams of other youths held in similar confinement. 

The former residents also testified about the emotional toll they have gone through, with several saying they have had great difficulty in relationships with others because of the trauma they suffered as children. 

“We weren’t bad kids,” Debbie Hazen, another member of Voices of St. Joseph’s, told the committee Thursday. “We were just kids.” 

Several of the former St. Joseph’s residents said they always wondered why no adult would come to their aid. Instead, they had to provide comfort and support to each other while at the orphanage. 

They also told committee members of the trouble they’ve had in finding their medical records from their time at the orphanage. And in many cases, they said, children did not seek out medical care for fear of retaliation. 

Scars on his back

Walter Coltey said he still has scars on his back he got from whippings he took at the orphanage. He told the committee that, as an 8-year-old child, the conditions at the orphanage were intolerable.  

He urged the committee to approve the bill that would remove the statute of limitations for civil claims of childhood physical abuse. “Please remove these restrictions so that no one can ever hide behind them,” Coltey said. 

Sears, the committee chair, thanked all those who spoke Thursday for the courage they displayed in telling their stories. 

Coltey told those on the committee to ensure they keep their own children safe. 

“Make sure they stay that way and never end up like we did,” he told the panel.

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