Review: ‘Ghosts of the Orphanage,’ by Christine Kenneally

Star Tribune [Minneapolis MN]

March 17, 2023

By Laurie Hertzel

[Note: Author Christine Kenneally is reading at Harvard Book Store in Cambridge MA on Tuesday 3/28/23 at 7:00 pm. See her publisher’s page for other New England dates.]

Even after Spotlight, even after Tuam, this book was a shock. Christine Kenneally’s exposé of the abuse and torture of children in 20th-century orphanages fits neatly alongside those earlier stories of religious institutional child abuse. And yet, readers might find themselves emotionally unprepared.

Kenneally’s book, “Ghosts of the Orphanage,” focuses primarily on St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vt., though it also touches on Native boarding schools as well as institutions in Canada, Ireland and Australia. Most were run by the Catholic Church. The appalling stories from all of those places are chillingly similar.

Children taken into these institutions were often stripped of their name, birthday and identity; they were known by numbers and sometimes by cruel nicknames. Punishments for even minor infractions ranged from strappings to beatings to isolation in dark closets, attics and, appallingly, a huge empty water tank where children were sometimes left for days.

Children who wet the bed were draped in the wet sheets. Children who vomited were made to eat the vomit. (“Lap it up,” a nun commanded.) A girl who stole a piece of candy was beaten and then a nun burned her fingertips with matches. Children were thrown down stairs, dangled over stairwells and out of windows, tossed out of boats and told to swim. Some children died.

At night, children were summoned from their beds and subjected to all manner of physical and sexual abuse. A few escaped, only to find that no adults believed their stories. They were returned to the orphanage, where they were brutally punished.

The orphanage, Kenneally writes, was “a tiny totalitarian state, a dark castle, a factory of pain.” Fifty, 60 years later, these now-grown children are still traumatized.

Kenneally is a diligent, patient reporter; her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times and elsewhere and her 2018 investigative piece on St. Joseph’s in Buzzfeed prompted hundreds of leads that inform this book.

She gives generous credit to reporters who came before her — the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, who broke the story of sexually predating priests in 2002; Sam Hemingway, the reporter for the Burlington, Vt., Free Press, who also reported on St. Joseph’s; Catherine Corless, the woman in Tuam, Ireland, whose dogged questions over years led to the discovery of hundreds of tiny bodies inside a sewer tank buried on the grounds of the old mother-and-baby home.

The stories from St. Joseph’s were so appalling that it was difficult for authorities — and for Kenneally, at first — to believe them. Surely the 50-year-old memories were flawed? Surely the children had imagined these things? But over 10 years of reporting, Kenneally chips away at the secrets, finding documentation and corroboration. The reportage in this book is impeccable. She never says more than she can prove, but she also never says less. The stories were true.

The nuns themselves, the ones Kenneally was able to track down — now ancient and living in care homes — seemed unconcerned about what they had done. Some of them were young teenagers, uneducated and fresh off the family farm, when they joined the convent. Others grew up in orphanages and had endured abuse themselves.

“We had permission,” said one nun, Sister Priscille, who once tried to push a girl out a window. “We had permission to kick the children.”

How, you may wonder, with so much brutality over so many institutions and across so many countries, could the church not have known? Church officials did not cooperate in the investigations but stalled, lied and obfuscated at every turn. Documents that leaked out were incriminating.

“According to the church’s own records, male predators largely filled the upper tiers of the St. Joseph’s organizational structure,” Kenneally writes. “These men were treated with reverence in the world, while between the safe, closed wall of the institution, they violated children.

“The coverup of crimes was profuse, intentional and effective.”

“Ghosts of the Orphanage” is a damning book, from start to finish.

Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune.

Ghosts of the Orphanage
By: Christine Kenneally.
Publisher: PublicAffairs, 367 pages, $30.

Laurie Hertzel has worked at the Star Tribune for more than two decades as an editor and writer. Previously, she was a writer and editor at Minnesota Monthly magazine and at the Duluth News-Tribune.