St. Joseph’s Orphanage Survivors Say Church Must Do More

Seven Days [Burlington VT]

September 16, 2021

By Colin Flanders

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington continues to disregard the lifelong impacts of the physical and sexual abuse carried out at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage, according to some former residents, who are calling on Bishop Christopher Coyne to compensate the remaining survivors of the long-shuttered facility.

Former orphanage residents expressed mixed emotions during a press conference at a South Burlington hotel on Thursday, recalling how a two-year restorative process has helped many of them begin to work through their deep-seated traumas.

But they said their attempts to move on have been undermined by the diocese’s refusal to engage with them on certain issues, including the question of compensation. Some speakers said they have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on therapy over the years. Others referenced the untold amount of money funneled into the orphanage from both the state and from their own parents.

“They took money out of my father’s pocket and abused us for it,” said Debi Gevry-Ellsworth, who was placed at the orphanage at the age of 2 along with her brother and sister and spent 10 years there. Her brother later killed himself.

Instead of attempting to repair the harm, said Michael Ryan, a former resident, Catholic leaders want to “sweep it all under the rug, just like they have all been for decades.”

“They need to provide restitution for their sins of the past,” he said.

It has been just over three years since Buzzfeed News published an article detailing extensive allegations of rampant abuse at the former Burlington orphanage, which housed some 13,000 children from 1854 to 1974. Former residents shared accounts of corporal punishment and sexual misconduct, and several said they had even seen nuns kill children.

The story prompted Attorney General T.J. Donovan to launch an investigation in 2019 that ultimately uncovered no proof of any murders but did find credible evidence of widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse. The investigation also concluded that Vermont state and law enforcement officials failed to protect the children.

A group of former orphanage residents brought together by the article and subsequent investigation has met weekly for roughly two years, providing a sense of comfort and belonging that some survivors say had long been missing in their lives. The group staged a memorial wall in one of the hotel’s conference rooms and recently published an anthology of writing that’s now on sale.

COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYSFormer St. Joseph's residents speaking at Thursday's press conference
Former St. Joseph’s residents speaking at Thursday’s press conference (COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS)

As the former residents continue to grapple with their childhood traumas, many say the Catholic Church should be doing more to help. For some, that might mean making it easier to access therapy;  while the diocese has been willing to pay for therapy in some cases, the offer has only applied to therapists the diocese chooses, according to the survivors.

Others say they should be compensated for their pain and suffering. “We’re not asking for millions,” said Maura LaBelle. “We’re asking to make our lives a little better.”

Nearly 200 former St. Joseph’s residents accepted $5,000 settlements from the diocese in the 1990s, signing nondisclosure agreements in exchange. Coyne released them from those legal pacts to allow survivors to participate in the attorney general’s investigation and to publicly share their stories. But he has said that the Burlington diocese is not willing to relitigate those cases, maintaining that the organization has no more money to pay survivors.

The diocese has paid roughly $32 million in settlements to childhood sexual abuse plaintiffs over the last two decades, and Coyne told Seven Days this spring that if the organization settled 10 pending cases in full, the payouts would exceed the rest of the diocese’s resources.

“At the end of the day, like other dioceses and archdioceses across the country, we may face bankruptcy,” Coyne said in May, though he refused to share the sum of the diocese’s assets.

LaBelle, who received one of the settlements in the ’90s,  took exception to Coyne’s prediction, pointing to media reports documenting how Vermont Catholic leaders moved in the mid-2000s to stash roughly $500 million in property into more than 100 individual trusts to shield the assets from abuse settlements.

A memorial wall for former St. Joseph's residents (Colin Flanders (c) Seven Days)
A memorial wall for former St. Joseph’s residents (Colin Flanders (c) Seven Days)

She and other former residents called on Coyne to release how much money the diocese has paid in legal fees to defend itself from abuse allegations.

“We are at the end of our lives,” said LaBelle, who, at 63, was among some of the younger survivors in the room. “It won’t take that much to help us live a little better.”

A spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington provided a statement that said representatives from both the diocese and the Vermont Catholic Charities, the arm of the church responsible for placing children in the orphanage, have been meeting individually with former St. Joseph’s residents upon request 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,” the statement read. “If the person feels they would be helped through counseling, we would work with them as needed.” The statement did not mention any form of compensation, and the spokesperson did not return a follow-up question.

Should the diocese continue to refuse any financial help for St. Joseph’s survivors, some former residents may have another option: legal action. Vermont legislators passed a new law this spring that eliminates the statute of limitations on lawsuits arising from childhood physical abuse.

As Seven Days reported earlier this year, those who wish to sue the diocese could face an uphill battle given that the Vermont Catholic Charities kept limited records on the nuns who worked there, and many of them are now deceased.

Still, some former residents appear willing to sue. “They’re giving us no option,” LaBelle said.