|Memoir Details Alleged Abuse at Orphanage
By Peter Smith
March 18, 2009
A blurry photo -- one of the few from Kim Michele Richardson's childhood -- shows a girl with a half-smile wearing a white dress and veil, borrowed for her First Communion.
The story behind the photo, according to Richardson's new memoir, is of a day of torture that she says was typical of her childhood years at a Roman Catholic orphanage near Anchorage in the 1960s.
She writes that the nun in charge of her dormitory beat her that day while dressing her, breaking her arm, and that she received her First Communion from a priest who would later molest her.
After a modest celebratory lunch with her mother -- a troubled woman who had lost custody of her daughters and had arrived for a rare visit, pregnant and smelling of alcohol -- Richardson writes, she returned to the dormitory, where the nun beat her again for staining the borrowed white dress. Eventually, her memoir says, the nun kicked her in the stomach until she vomited.
Lawsuits alleging sexual abuse at the former St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage near Anchorage generated thousands of pages of legal documents before the case was settled in 2006.
But the latest 225 pages, which allege years of ferocious beatings, sexual abuse and spiteful humiliations, were the most excruciatingly vivid.
Story of resilience
Richardson's book, "Unbreakable Child: A Story About Forgiving the Unforgiveable," echoes many of those tales of alleged horrors at the orphanage, which was operated by the Nelson County-based religious order until it closed in 1983.
But the book, being released next month by Kunati Book Publishers, also is a story of her own resilience.
"I'd turn to the abuser and fight back with an ice-cold glare, and it became clear to me, after one nun retreated in defeat, that … I'd never be completely broken," she wrote.
Richardson, 51, of Louisville, said that for decades she had forced away her memories of the orphanage. When she joined a lawsuit against the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth in 2004, she filed under her maiden name, since she hadn't even told her own children about her upbringing, she said.
"When I walked out that (orphanage) door, I swore I was never going back," Richardson said in an interview. "I said, 'I am going to bury this so deep.' "
But after joining the lawsuit, she began writing her story. And after multiple drafts, her manuscript was accepted for publication.
"They're my memories," she said. "I wish I could take some of them and erase them. (But), yes, they did happen."
David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), estimated that only about two-dozen of the thousands of victims of sexual abuse in Roman Catholic institutions have written memoirs, and even fewer had them published.
The Sisters of Charity ultimately settled the lawsuits with Richardson and 44 other plaintiffs in 2006 for $1.5 million.
Sisters of Charity spokeswoman Diane Curtis said she hasn't seen the book and could not comment on its details.
But she added, "Abuse goes against the very core of who we are as women of compassion. We have been committed to seeking truth and being part of the healing process. … Certainly, the sharing of one's story with others is one way that healing can come about."
She said the order continues "to believe in the goodness of our sisters, certainly, and we hold their memory with great reverence, mindful that because they're dead they can't speak for themselves."
That fact frustrates Richardson as well.
"I felt I was punishing this new breed of nuns" rather than the perpetrators, she said of her involvement in the lawsuit. "I sat in this deposition and I looked at this nun and she was so sweet -- it was very, very hard. I felt really guilty. I felt at that point I was abandoning my soul, God, everything."
But she said she ultimately concluded the order abused its responsibility to care for her and her three sisters in the years their single mother was incapable of doing so. One sister died as a young adult, and the other two also sued the nuns over the lingering traumas of abuse.
Richardson and her sisters were among more than 30 plaintiffs to accuse the Rev. Herman Lammers, the live-in chaplain who died in 1986, of sexually abusing them. Some plaintiffs, including one of Richardson's sisters, also accused nuns of sexual abuse.
Numerous plaintiffs interviewed by The Courier-Journal when the cases were filed in 2004 told of being locked in closets, force-fed until they gagged, thrown down stairs or compelled to crawl for hours for offenses.
'A happy place' for some
But other former orphans interviewed at the time said they had happy memories of the orphanage. They said the nuns cared for them, educated them and gave them more stable lives than their broken families could have.
And some of the few surviving nuns to have worked at the orphanages said in depositions they did not see physical or sexual abuses. Because the case was settled before trial, no court ever ruled on the charges.
Curtis said the Sisters of Charity have offered to speak with anyone about their experiences at the orphanage.
"We have heard from many people who claim that the orphanage was a real home and a happy place for them," she said. "That others experienced it as a hurtful place and time deeply saddens us."
'It's a human issue'
Richardson is a mother of two who has remained a Catholic and even sent a child to Catholic schools -- noting with irony that the amount she received from the settlement was enough to pay her younger child's remaining years of tuition.
Her husband of 20 years, Joe Richardson, a Louisville Metro Police major, calls her "the strongest woman I've ever met."
Richardson donated her book advance and a portion of future proceeds to SNAP and to Family and Children's Place, which aims to prevent child abuse.
"It's not a religious issue," Richardson said. "I could have just as easily been raised by Tibetan monks. It's a human issue. Now more than ever, the opportunity exists for people to come forward and heal."
Reporter Peter Smith can be reached at (502) 582-4469 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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