|Abuse Lawsuits against
Judge’s decision that claims came too late is ominous sign for remaining cases
By Sam Hemingway
August 23, 1998
In a major victory for the state’s Roman Catholic diocese, a federal judge has thrown out three more lawsuits alleging abuse at a Burlington orphanage.
The grounds on which they were dismissed that the former orphans had waited too long to file suit could affect the outcome of the estimated dozen cases that remain in state and federal courts.
With these three decisions Judge J. Garvan Murtha has dismissed all five cases brought before him by former orphans against the diocese, which ran St. Joseph’s Orphanage for 120 years until its closing in 1974.
More than a hundred former orphanage residents have come forward since 1993 with stories involving being beaten, locked up in attics or closets as discipline and forced to eat their own vomit.
Additionally, some claimed they were sexually molested by nuns, priests or staff workers at the orphanage, now the diocesan headquarters on North Avenue.
Church officials have questioned the veracity of the claims, but provided $5,000 payments to an estimated 60 aggrieved former residents and a much larger out-of-court settlement to one former St. Joseph’s resident in 1996.
“We are pleased Judge Murtha, after reviewing all the facts brought in these cases has come to the conclusion we came to some time ago, that these cases were not worthy of proceeding with further,” said attorney John Gravel, representing Vermont Catholic Charities.
“We deny any such abuse ever took place,” Gravel said. “For various and sundry reasons, these people chose this avenue as a method for explaining their current emotional condition in a way that was acceptable to them. If they could blame it on St. Joseph’s, then it was not their fault.”
Attorney William O’Brien, representing the diocese, agreed. “The most important part of this is that the judge found no evidence whatsoever that my client was on notice of any abusive situation at all,” he said.
Robert Widman, a Florida lawyer who has led the legal battle on behalf of most of the former orphans, said he plans to appeal the rulings.
“It is disturbing my folks could have been treated this way in the orphanage and then be told no one believes it happened,” he said. “It’s very disappointing that not all the facts were allowed to be brought out in court.”
In dismissing the suits, Murtha concluded the former residents of the now-closed St. Joseph’s Orphanage waited too long in addressing their physical abuse claims and the time period for filing their lawsuits had passed.
“Her recollections of the abuse, coupled with her own awareness of her poor self-image and other psychological problems, placed her on notice that these were matters she should have investigated,” Murtha wrote in dismissing the case of Sally Dale of Middletown, Conn.
In the case of sexual abuse allegations, Murtha’s rationale for dismissal was the church could not be held liable for such conduct if it happened, since it was unrelated to the duties of orphanage workers and no one was notified of the alleged incidents.
Dale, contacted Tuesday, said Murtha’s decision was illogical. “How was I supposed to investigate something when I did not know to ask why it took place?” she said. “And who were we going to tell anything? They would just think ‘Oh, she’s just making up stories.’’’
Dale lived at the orphanage from 1939 to 1961 and said she was physically and sexually abused, as was Donald Shuttle of Northport, Fla., another former orphan whose case was dismissed.
“I guess what it means is we’re guilty and the church ain’t,” Shuttle said. “For years, we thought everyone was raised like us. We had nothing to go by. I just would have liked to have seen our story go to a court and jury. It’s been a nightmare.”
Barbara Hammons of Ludlow, Ky., said she was angry at Murtha’s dismissal of her case.
“I know what I know, and it wasn’t our fault that we got
abused,” she said, “but there’s a judge in a much higher
place and those people who did this to us will have to answer to Him.
That’s the Lord. And that’s my only consolation.”
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