Abuse Suit Involving Old Orphanage Brings Forth Both Critics and Defenders

By Peter Smith
September 12, 2004

[See also the other articles in this feature: Accused Priest Recalled As Both 'Saint' and Abuser; Suits Against Order Involve 41 Plaintiffs; and Sisters of Charity and Orphanages They Ran.]

The large brick orphanage was demolished 20 years ago, and a subdivision has replaced the fields and hills where hundreds of children once lived, played and sometimes ran away.

Although the St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage faded into history along with many other large children's homes that closed in the late 20th century, memories of the orphanage in eastern Jefferson County have been revived by a wave of litigation this summer. Those memories range from fond to nightmarish.

To date, 41 people have sued the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, alleging sexual abuse between the 1930s and 1970s by a priest, 15 nuns and others.

Most of the allegations are linked to St. Thomas-St. Vincent, which the order operated for the Catholic Charities agency of the Archdiocese of Louisville. Other allegations are linked to the St. Thomas and St. Vincent orphanages before they merged in 1952, or to schools where the nuns worked in the Louisville area.

In interviews, some former residents -- plaintiffs and others -- talk about incidents such as being locked in closets, force-fed until they gagged, thrown down stairs or compelled to crawl for hours for offenses.

But others tell of stable and happy times at the orphanages, and they defend the workers there who shaped their lives. They say they received a good education and a decent start in life, better than what they could have received from their own impoverished or broken families.

The suits focus on a vanished world of traditional orphanages, in which needy or neglected children lived for long periods in dormitory-style housing.

Though the home changed over the decades, former residents and staff recalled some common themes: long institutional corridors and broad rooms painted colors such as gun-metal gray; numerous windows flooding the building with sunlight; and a regular regimen of school, chores, play and meals.

They recall vegetable gardens and athletic fields, a broad lawn and annual picnics that drew thousands to the campus.

During some years, children worked in the gardens or in the orphanage laundry; others recalled having only light chores.

Some recalled that their stomachs were never full. Richard Boone, who now lives in California and has mostly positive memories of the orphanage, remembers that he and other boys would huddle around a dumbwaiter to pick up scraps of food being returned from the nuns' dining area.

Former chaplain accused

In the lawsuits, 32 plaintiffs are accusing a former chaplain at the St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage, the late Monsignor Herman J. Lammers, of sexual abuse. Fourteen of the plaintiffs also accuse 15 nuns of sexual or physical abuse, and three others accuse two men identified as a volunteer and an assistant. Some plaintiffs allege they were abused by more than one person.

Many of the plaintiffs allege Lammers raped or fondled girls at the orphanage, and some said they complained to nuns who refused to help

Deborah Hager of Radcliff said she still has nightmares and gets "sick in my stomach" when she recalls her time in the orphanage. Hager alleges in the lawsuit that Lammers sexually molested her, and she said in an interview that nuns hit her.

She hopes "that people will actually believe that this stuff does happen. I'll be 47 on my next birthday and I've never said a word about this to anybody." The abuse was "a whole lot worse than what you could ever put in the paper," she said.

Some of Lammers' co-workers and some former residents, such as Boone, said they are shocked by the allegations and said they have nothing but positive memories of the priest as an enthusiastic and athletic mentor.

"It's inconceivable for this to even happen," said Paul Haysley, who lived at the St. Thomas Orphanage in the 1940s and for decades volunteered on the Catholic Orphans Society board, which supported the program.

"These nuns have given their lives to the children, to poor people, to God, and for them to be slandered doesn't seem to be right," he said.

Even some of the plaintiffs said they recall compassionate nuns and lay workers.

The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, based in Nelson County, has denied accusations that the order covered up alleged abuse but have said the order is ready to talk with anyone making allegations of abuse who prefers not to go through the court system.

Sister Betty Vannucci, who worked as a teacher and supervisor at St. Thomas-St. Vincent from 1957 to 1962, said in an interview that she was "shocked" to hear of the allegations, particularly since former co-workers are named in suits.

"I've thought about it and gone over it and tried to remember everything I could because it's so important," she said, but she said she could recall no hints of either sexual or physical abuse.

"I never saw a paddle, I never saw a child paddled," she said, adding that most of the discipline involved, for example, keeping a misbehaving child indoors during playtime.

Harsh treatment reported

The lawsuits mainly focus on allegations of sexual rather than physical abuse.

Nevertheless, several former residents interviewed told of harsh punishments.

Karen Snyder said she believes Lammers is innocent and that there were some "mighty good nuns there," but she said other nuns meted out physical punishment. Snyder claims she was forced to crawl for hours on her knees until they bled and became infected.

One plaintiff, identified in court documents as Gladys Cambron, said in an interview she experienced a "pure hell" at the St. Vincent Orphanage, where she lived in the 1930s and 1940s. In addition to alleging sexual abuse by Lammers, she said in an interview that a nun tied her to a chair and beat her. She also said she saw a nun throw her sister down stairs.

Margaret Taylor, who is not a plaintiff, lived at St. Vincent in the 1930s and 1940s. Taylor, the sister of Richard Boone, has only positive memories of Lammers.

But the orphanage was otherwise "a terrible place, a lonesome place," she said in an interview.

Taylor said it was not just the harsh conditions she remembers -- the ill-fitting shoes that deformed her toes, the wet laundry that froze to her arm on wintry days. What she remembers most is being gripped with fear even to talk because the nuns slapped her so often.

"I thought often they did the best they could, but I don't think some of those things were necessary," Taylor recalled. "But we didn't dare speak up."

Still, she wonders how she and her brother would have survived without the orphanage.

Their mother had died, and their father -- a poor sharecropper -- was unable to support them in those Depression years. He placed her at St. Vincent and her brother at St. Thomas.

Boone, a retired lawyer, recalls the daily routine of Mass, school and chores, ranging from work in the orphanage laundry to tending crops and chickens.

In an interview, he recalled the wide-open athletic fields and swimming pool.

He said many restless boys tried to run away and were soon corralled by staff.

And he readily described stern physical punishments, but he dismissed such hardships as part of the tougher times in which he grew up.

"I didn't know anything else and I thought this was the greatest place in the world," he said.

Vannucci, the former staff member, said that in the context of its era, the orphanage "was a wonderful ministry, and I think we helped a lot of children. I think we have (former residents who are) successful in society today because of the work that was done at St. Thomas-St. Vincent Orphanage."

But she said such large institutions could only do so much and that the child welfare system has correctly shifted toward seeking to place children quickly into adoptive or foster homes.

Though the nuns at the orphanage made the living quarters as homelike as possible, "nobody could take 24 seventh- and eighth-grade girls ... and relate to those girls the way they needed to be related to," she said.


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