3 Former Residents of Bergen Orphanage Claim Abuse

By John Chadwick
June 12, 2003

Catholic church officials and New Jersey law enforcement authorities said this week they're looking into allegations of child abuse dating back to the 1960s at a now-defunct orphanage in Rockleigh.

Three adults who spent time at St. Joseph's Village recently came forward to give accounts of harsh treatment that in some cases included sexual abuse.

The three accusers, who live in different states and say they found each other over time via the Internet, have separately implicated a range of people - nuns, a priest, lay people, and a police officer. Many of those people are now dead, officials said.

Two of the accusers have reported their allegations to the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, the religious order that ran the orphanage, which opened in 1958 and closed in 1973.

"The sisters have been investigating this vigorously," said Marianna Thompson, an official with the Paterson Diocese and a spokeswoman for the nuns. The sisters' local headquarters is in Englewood Cliffs.

The Newark Archdiocese is also investigating the allegations of a third accuser, because the accusations involve a priest who had served in its jurisdiction, spokesman Jim Goodness said. The priest, who is dead, was a chaplain at the orphanage.

In addition, the state Attorney General's Office is conducting a review. John Hagerty, spokesman for the Division of Criminal Justice, described the action as "information gathering" and said it was unlikely that authorities would bring the case to a grand jury because the statute of limitations has expired.

"St. Joseph's Village has come to the attention of the Division of Criminal Justice through its own ongoing review into sexual allegations in New Jersey dioceses," Hagerty said. "Investigators have talked to former residents and obtained information regarding sexual abuse of males as well as females." The orphanage was built in the mid-1950s on a 50-acre tract off Piermont Road. The sprawling, beige-brick building, which still stands today, housed about 200 boys and girls.

It closed in the early 1970s, and the sisters' order sold the property to Bergen County.

The accusers remember their childhood home as a dark, intimidating, and sometimes vicious place.

"They really whittled away at your sense of identity and your sense of self-worth," said Katherine Cudney, a Smithfield, Tenn., woman, who lived at St. Joseph's from age 2 to 8. "You lived in fear."

"He would show up in uniform and use his police belt," Walker said.

Walker also said he was raped shortly after leaving the orphanage by a man who was involved with the transition to living with his father.

Cudney spoke of a range of punishments the nuns would employ, including having to stand naked in front of other children. She recalled lining up for painful spankings, each child naked from the waist down.

Another accuser, Tim Walker, of Atlanta, said a police officer frequently visited the orphanage and beat children the nuns had singled out as troublemakers.

Thompson, the spokeswoman for the nuns, said it may take several months to conclude the investigation.


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