Orphanage abuse: Vermont authorities to investigate survivors' stories
By Elizabeth Murray
September 07, 2018
|Historic image shows the North Avenue side of the former St. Joseph’s Orphanage.|
|Christine Kenneally, BuzzFeed news reporter who wrote "The Ghosts of the Orphanage" about child abuse at Roman Catholic orphanages in the United States, including St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont.|
|Sam Hemingway, a retired Burlington Free Press reporter whose investigative work over the years included revelations about child abuse at St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont.|
Local and state authorities plan to investigate the criminality of abuse against children at St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington that occurred decades ago.
A joint state-local task force is to be announced 10 a.m. Monday at the Burlington Police Department, Vermont State Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Friday.
The probe, first reported by Seven Days, is planned in the wake of last week's massive Buzzfeed News article by reporter Christine Kenneally about child abuse at Roman Catholic orphanages during the 20th century.
The article, building on reporting done two decades ago by the Burlington Free Press, focused in large part on practices and incidents at the orphanage in Burlington, which closed in the 1970s. Survivors spoke of a boy thrown from a window to his death, of beatings by nuns, of a girl made to slap herself 50 times and of children being locked away for hours or days in the attic.
"I've driven by that place thousands of times," said Donovan, a native Burlingtonian. "I went to Burlington High School a couple hundred yards away. This was a well-kept secret. I think we can say unequivocally that abuse occurred there."
Investigating allegations of murdered children "is a priority," but it is not limited to those accusations, Donovan said.
"We will go where the evidence takes us," he said.
Asked about a possible investigation Friday afternoon, Diocese of Burlington spokesperson Ellen Kane said this: “We have not been contacted. This is news to us.”
She referred a reporter to recent statements by Bishop Christopher Coyne, including one this week in which Coyne wrote that "new revelations of scandalous and even criminal activity ... have deeply angered and shaken all of us."
More: 3 takeaways from Bishop Coyne's blog about response to priest abuse scandal
No decisions have yet been made by officials including Mayor Miro Weinberger on how to proceed, Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said.
"Everything’s at its nascent stages," del Pozo said. "The mayor has a real interest in making sure that if there were crimes that happened in his city, even decades ago, we do everything we can to account to victims and find out what actually happened."
In his own statement, Weinberger said, "The allegations of abuse and violence at the former Burlington orphanage are horrific and demand investigation. The city has been reviewing options for formal action and we will be joining other civic leaders Monday morning to discuss our intentions with the public."
Civil cases, but no prosecutions in 1990s
Survivors of abuse began to come forward a quarter-century ago, bringing court cases and speaking publicly about what they had suffered earlier in the 20th century at the hands of nuns and priests at the Roman Catholic facility on North Avenue.
As chronicled by Burlington Free Press reporter Sam Hemingway at the time, most of the court claims were quashed by judges because so many years had passed. A number of survivors did receive some level of monetary settlement and an apology from the Diocese of Burlington.
But no criminal investigations were opened in the 1990s, at a time years before the Boston Globe "Spotlight" investigation brought the realities of clergy sex abuse to the forefront of public awareness nationwide.
Now, Donovan, Weinberger and del Pozo will pursue in some form the criminal investigation their predecessors chose not to two decades earlier.
"I think that we have to believe the victims, but we'll certainly do our job and look at the evidence," Donovan said.
While Vermont authorities did not prosecute anyone associated with the St. Joseph's Orphanage abuse, they did prosecute some priests who in the early 2000s were accused of sexual abuse as the Catholic Church clergy abuse scandal unfolded.
Vermont and Pennsylvania attorneys general discuss grand jury report
That scandal came back into the limelight last month, when a Pennsylvania grand jury released a stunning report indicating some 300 priests in the state had abused about 1,000 people.
Donovan said he's spoken to his Pennsylvania counterpart, Josh Shapiro, who oversaw the sending of subpoenas to Catholic dioceses in his state that fueled the grand jury's findings.
"I think there's a larger issue here of the Catholic Church being accountable for abusing vulnerable children," the Vermont attorney general said. "Whether or not those cases can be proved, whether or not those cases can be prosecuted, certainly is one inquiry. But, the larger issue of accountability is something that needs to be addressed, and I look forward to working hopefully collaboratively with the church during this process."
The precise scope of the task force investigation -- and what subpoenas might be issued -- remains unclear, pending Monday's news conference in Burlington.
"I’m incredibly troubled by those allegations," Donovan said. "We know that Vermont’s not immune from this. We’ve dealt with these issues in the past.”
More: Reporting on the St. Joseph's Orphanage abuse: 'It just cried out for attention'
'Justice still hasn't been done'
In a video conversation between reporters Kenneally and Hemingway hosted by the Burlington Free Press, they talked of how St. Joseph's Orphanage abuse survivors were rebuffed for the most part after coming forward.
"It’s one of the great tragedies," Hemingway said of civil cases that the Diocese of Burlington successfully fended off. "One, it didn’t settle anything for the diocese. They had suffered a wicked black eye in the process."
As for the survivors, "These people brought forward these claims and wound up basically abused again, this time by the court system."
Says Kenneally: "Justice still hasn’t been done. Justice needs to be done for these people. The record is there."