Journalist Christine Kenneally (back row center, with glasses) meets former orphanage residents and their supporters last April at the Vermont Historical Society exhibit “Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor / VTDigger

A BuzzFeed writer exposed abuse at a Vermont orphanage. Her new book reveals even more.

VTDigger [Montpelier VT]

March 20, 2023

By Kevin O'Connor

[Note: Author Christine Kenneally is reading at Phoenix Books in Burlington VT on Wednesday 3/22/23 and at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge MA on Tuesday 3/28/23. See her publisher’s page for other New England dates. Photo above: Journalist Christine Kenneally (back row center, with glasses) meets former orphanage residents and their supporters last April at the Vermont Historical Society exhibit “Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage.” Photo by Kevin O’Connor / VTDigger.]

Journalist Christine Kenneally sparked worldwide headlines in 2018 when her BuzzFeed exposé about a history of abuse at Burlington’s now-closed St. Joseph’s Orphanage, “We Saw Nuns Kill Children,” spurred local and state authorities to launch a review that confirmed misconduct, if not the story’s 75-year-old claims of murder.

“Allegations were never investigated when they should have been,” former Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said after the probe ended in 2020 with an apology but no criminal charges. “It is my hope that through a restorative process, we can bring peace, we can bring justice, we can bring reconciliation for so many of these survivors who still struggle today.”

But Kenneally wasn’t ready to move on. After devoting six years to the BuzzFeed article, the writer has invested five more expanding it into a new book, “Ghosts of the Orphanage: A Story of Mysterious Deaths, a Conspiracy of Silence, and a Search for Justice.”

“Take a group of people at their most vulnerable, make them subject to an organization with almost zero transparency to the outside world, build weak to nonexistent systems of oversight, and give the organization social status or exemption from taxes — then what does the abuse look like?” she writes in the introduction. “It is profuse, complicated, and category-busting.”

The 384-page hardcover, which the Hachette imprint PublicAffairs is releasing Tuesday, features dozens more people who came forward after the BuzzFeed article to reveal their own horrors.

“I talked to as many survivors from St. Joseph’s as I could,” writes Kenneally, working in the shadow of widely reported Vermont priest misconduct against altar boys. “I was haunted by the idea that the child abuse sex scandal that had cost so many millions of dollars and left such a foul stain might not be the worst thing that had happened in the Catholic Church. It might only be the tip of the iceberg.”

That said, Kenneally doesn’t view her book as simply the stuff of history.

“America’s 20th-century orphanages are the immediate ancestor of its modern foster care system,” she writes. “It’s impossible to imagine that we can clearly judge the benefits and danger for children in the modern system when we remain blind to the stark realities of the system that preceded it.”

In the new hardcover, many more of the roughly 13,000 children who lived at the orphanage from its opening in 1854 to its closing in 1974 confirm being shouted at, slapped or sexually abused.

“People who had been at St. Joseph’s in different years, even different decades, described how they had been confined in the same water tank or how they had watched other children be put into the same nursery closet,” Kenneally writes. “They remembered a ruler, a paddle, a strap, a small ax, a light bulb, clappers, and a set of large rosary beads. They spoke about lit matches being held against skin.”

They also recalled the brick building’s attic.

“When they were good, they had gone up there two by two to retrieve Sunday clothes, play clothes, and winter gear,” she writes. “When they were bad, they were pushed, dragged, and blasted up the stairs to sit alone and scream into the void.”

‘Ground zero for the world’s orphanage story’

Kenneally notes that nuns from the Montreal-based Sisters of Providence traded their long French birth names for shorter English ones before staffing the orphanage — making identification nearly impossible today. But the writer was able to locate one former nun, Sister Priscille.

“I knocked at the Quebec apartment that was listed for her,” she writes, “and a tiny, birdlike 88-year-old with a huge smile opened the door.”

The nun went on to ask Kenneally why she was posing so many questions about past abuse.

“That would put me in prison, sometime?” the writer recalled Sister Priscille saying. “We had permission to kick the children … But today I know we don’t have permission.”

Kenneally faced less difficulty tracking the priests who oversaw the orphanage, which was owned by the Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese. Tapping a 2019 church report, she found that at least six of St. Joseph’s eight resident chaplains from 1935 to 1974 and the three last clerics to head Vermont Catholic Charities during the facility’s operation were singled out for alleged sexual abuse.

“With the publication of the names of credibly accused priests, the church has effectively conceded that the chain of succession at the institution was essentially a chain of accused pedophiles,” she writes. “These men oversaw a set of abusive visiting male clergy, resident abusive nuns, and abusive lay workers.”

Kenneally didn’t foresee her past decade of reporting when growing up in her homeland of Australia. Earning a doctorate in linguistics, she wrote books about the origins of language and opportunities of DNA before attending a conference of archivists. There, attendees shared the seemingly insurmountable challenge of helping former orphanage residents obtain birth certificates and other vital records.

“The archivists,” she writes, “had come to feel that the former residents’ plight was a human rights issue.”

Raised Catholic, Kenneally decided to study that religion’s orphanage system. The Australian wound up some 10,000 miles away in Vermont upon consulting, the largest digital library of documents on Catholic clergy misconduct.

The website pointed her to a set of 1990s stories by Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway, who chronicled a pioneering case of several dozen former orphanage residents taking their onetime overseers to court.

Three decades ago, the Vermont diocese offered potential plaintiffs $5,000 each to waive their right to further legal action. At the same time, those who filed lawsuits eventually dropped them after a judge ruled they couldn’t receive church records or band together in a consolidated trial.

Fast-forward to recent times: When Kenneally contacted the now-retired Hemingway, he not only had 20 boxes of depositions and documents, but also volunteered to ship them halfway around the world. More paperwork from orphanage residents and their lawyers followed.

“It was like finding the archaeological ruins of a medieval fortress,” Kenneally writes of the resulting collection. “St. Joseph’s became a kind of ground zero for the world’s orphanage story because what remained was, in a sense, the most complete archaeological site I had come across.”

‘There yet is so much more to be recovered’

The book, like the BuzzFeed article, features Sally Dale, a now-deceased orphanage resident who recalled being around 6 years old when she saw a boy thrown out of a fourth-floor window to his death in 1944.

“He kind of hit, and …” Kenneally quotes Dale in a 1996 court deposition. “And then he laid still.”

The hardcover adds the voices of other residents with equally graphic memories dating back as far as the 1920s.

“Piecing together all the stories — the drowned, the fallen, the beaten, the frozen, the sick — was like assembling a jigsaw puzzle with thousands of pieces, all in shades of gray,” Kenneally writes.

The author, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic and Time, admits she was initially skeptical of the deadliest claims. Then she thought about it.

“If I believed what the former residents of orphanages were saying, if I believed even half of their stories about what had happened to them and what they had seen, the sheer numbers of children who were whipped, slapped, cut, hit, thrown, crushed, and launched into thin air, then it made no sense to assume that children were not killed,” she writes.

Although Kenneally found no definitive proof of murder, she unearthed numerous questionable death certificates. The book’s index, for its part, includes a “death stories” entry with such subcategories as “burned boy in coffin,” “drownings,” “electrocution,” “freezing incidents,” “staircase incidents,” “suffocations” and “window incidents.”

“Many mysteries remained unresolved,” she writes. “But sometimes a death certificate or some other bit of information rescued a story from the status of fable and planted it firmly in the world of the real, or at least moved it closer.”

In her conclusion, Kenneally interviews such experts as Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist best known for his best-selling book “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in The Healing of Trauma.” Noting Dale’s memories of watching a boy fall to his death, Kenneally asked, “Could she have made them up?”

“You would have to ask instead,” Van der Kolk replied, “what made her such a creative genius that she could make up those stories and cry and whimper, and basically be a better actress than Meryl Streep.”

Van der Kolk found no reason to doubt such recollections.

Leaders of the Sisters of Providence wouldn’t talk to Kenneally, so she quotes a 2020 VTDigger story in which they said while current review “focuses on those who allege hardship,” it was “mute on the important role of religious institutions in rearing and caring for orphaned children.”

The state’s largest religious denomination, for its part, has publicly expressed responsibility and regret, although it declined to participate in a restorative justice project that followed the investigation.

“We see no need for further inquiry,” the diocese said in a statement.

Kenneally is set to discuss her book at a series of New England events that start Wednesday at Burlington’s Phoenix Books and continue Saturday at Manchester’s Northshire Bookstore.

“It’s taken a long time, modern search technology, and enormous investment from state and national governments, news outlets, and many individuals to begin to grasp the scale of the story of St. Joseph’s Orphanage,” she writes. “In some ways, the story was too big to be told before. Increased scrutiny only makes it bigger.”

That’s why Kenneally is hoping to find a permanent home for her accumulated archive.

“The cloistered and cruel world of the orphanage may seem utterly fantastical, but the events that took place there belong very much to reality,” she writes. “That there yet is so much more to be recovered, to be reported, to be found again and told, matters.”

Kevin O’Connor is a Brattleboro-based writer and former staffer for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Times Argus.


View all stories by Kevin O’Connor