VTDigger [Montpelier VT]
September 16, 2021
By Kevin O'Connor
Former residents of Burlington’s shuttered St. Joseph’s Orphanage are voicing frustration with Vermont’s Roman Catholic Diocese as they push the state’s largest religious denomination to pay for counseling after their mistreatment decades ago.
“The diocese has done as little as possible to help with our healing goals,” said Michael Ryan, who lived at the orphanage as a child. “They need to provide restitution for their sins of the past.”
A group of 18 former residents gathered Thursday at a reunion that’s part of a restorative justice process, which the orphanage’s former owners at the diocese and operators at the Montreal-based Sisters of Providence have yet to join.
“The church demands atonement from its faithful,” former resident Katelin Hoffman said, “but hypocritically, it is avoiding atonement for its own sins.”
The St. Joseph’s Orphanage Restorative Inquiry came in response to last year’s conclusion of a government investigation of past problems at the facility, 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 upon releasing a 286-page report sparked by a 2018 BuzzFeed News story with the headline: “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 could not, however, find evidence of murder.
Although the state cannot press criminal charges because the accusations are too old, it’s supporting the restorative inquiry — an initiative of the city of Burlington’s Community Justice Center — to collect and share stories to promote “accountability, amends-making, learning and change.”
A group of survivors calling itself “Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage” championed this year’s successful effort in the state Legislature to repeal Vermont’s former statute of limitations for civil lawsuits related to childhood physical abuse.
Former residents say they were slapped and shut in closets. But under the old law, they had to file civil actions within three years upon realization it caused personal harm, leaving many without further means of recourse.
More than 100 survivors, for example, waived their rights to file lawsuits when the Vermont diocese paid them $5,000 each in the 1990s, while another 28 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 could not 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 found more legal success. The diocese has paid some $35 million in settlements for more than 50 accusers over the past quarter-century. To help fund that sum, the state’s largest religious denomination sold its 32-acre Burlington headquarters on Lake Champlain that included the orphanage building.
Survivors on Thursday questioned the diocese’s current claims that it lacked enough money to fund their requests for restitution.
“My challenge to [Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne] is to make public the amount of money the diocese has spent on lawyers since 1990 in the effort to avoid taking responsibility for abuse,” Hoffman said. “The diocese needs to do the moral and responsible thing and take responsibility for its actions, rather than pay millions to lawyers in order to avoid helping us.”
“We would never ask the Catholics of Vermont to stop attending Mass,” fellow survivor Maura Labelle said. “However, we hope that they will not put money in the collection baskets until these issues are truly resolved.”
The diocese, asked for comment, offered a statement noting Coyne and other church representatives have met with former residents “one-on-one as they have requested and will continue to do so. Each meeting is unique, each person’s story is unique, and the help we offer each former resident is specific to them. If the person feels they would be helped through counseling, we would work with them as needed.”
The diocese’s statement offered an online link for former residents to request medical records but did not address any other of the expressed concerns.
The Sisters of Providence — who have not cooperated with authorities or survivors — issued their most recent statement on the subject in December when they expressed “great sorrow” while downplaying their role.
“Primary responsibility for the operations and functioning of the orphanage fell to the priests and bishop of the Vermont Catholic Diocese,” the sisters said in the statement. “Various state of Vermont and municipal regulators also had responsibility for ensuring the well-being of the children.”
Jackie O’Brien contributed to this report.