We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage
It was a late summer afternoon, Sally Dale recalled, when the boy was thrown through the fourth-floor window.
“He kind of hit, and— ” she placed both hands palm-down before her. Her right hand slapped down on the left, rebounded up a little, then landed again.
For just a moment, the room was still. “Bounced?” one of the many lawyers present asked. “Well, I guess you’d call it — it was a bounce,” she replied. “And then he laid still.”
Sally, who was speaking under oath, tried to explain it. She started again. “The first thing I saw was looking up, hearing the crash of the window, and then him going down, but my eyes were still glued—.” She pointed up at where the broken window would have been and then she pointed at her own face and drew circles around it. “That habit thing, whatever it is, that they wear, stuck out like a sore thumb.”
A nun was standing at the window, Sally said. She straightened her arms out in front of her. “But her hands were like that.”
There were only two people in the yard, she said: Sally herself and a nun who was escorting her. In a tone that was still completely bewildered, she recalled asking, Sister?
Sister took hold of Sally’s ear, turned her around, and walked her back to the other side of the yard. The nun told her she had a vivid imagination. We are going to have to do something about you, child.
Sally figured the boy fell from the window in 1944 or so, because she was moving to the “big girls” dormitory that day. Girls usually moved when they were 6, though residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont, did not always have a clear sense of their age — birthdays, like siblings and even names, being one of the many human attributes that were stripped from them when they passed through its doors. She recounted his fall in a deposition on Nov. 6, 1996, as part of a remarkable group of lawsuits that 28 former residents brought against the nuns, the diocese, and the social agency that oversaw the orphanage.
I watched the deposition — all 19 hours of grainy, scratchy videotape — more than two decades later. By that time sexual abuse scandals had ripped through the Catholic Church, shattering the silence that had for so long protected its secrets. It was easier for accusers in general to come forward, and easier for people to believe their stories, even if the stories sounded too awful to be true. Even if they had happened decades ago, when the accusers were only children. Even if the people they were accusing were pillars of the community.
But for all these revelations — including this month’s Pennsylvania grand jury report on how the church hid the crimes of hundreds of priests — a darker history, the one to which Sally’s story belongs, remains all but unknown. It is the history of unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children. Across thousands of miles, across decades, the abuse took eerily similar forms: People who grew up in orphanages said they were made to kneel or stand for hours, sometimes with their arms straight out, sometimes holding their boots or some other item. They were forced to eat their own vomit. They were dangled upside down out windows, over wells, or in laundry chutes. Children were locked in cabinets, in closets, in attics, sometimes for days, sometimes so long they were forgotten. They were told their relatives didn’t want them, or they were permanently separated from their siblings. They were sexually abused. They were mutilated. They were dangled upside down out windows, over wells, or in laundry chutes.
Darkest of all, it is a history of children who entered orphanages but did not leave them alive.
From former residents of America’s Catholic orphanage system, I had heard stories about these deaths — that they were not natural or even accidents, but were instead the inevitable consequence of the nuns’ brutality. Sally herself described witnessing at least two incidents in which she said a child at St. Joseph’s died or was outright murdered.
It’s likely that more than 5 million Americans passed through orphanages in the 20th century alone. At its peak in the 1930s, the American orphanage system included more than 1,600 institutions, partly supported with public funding but usually run by religious orders, including the Catholic Church.
Outside the United States, the orphanage system and the wreckage it produced has undergone substantial official scrutiny over the last two decades. In Canada, the UK, Germany, Ireland, and Australia, multiple formal government inquiries have subpoenaed records, taken witness testimony, and found, time and again, that children consigned to orphanages — in many cases, Catholic orphanages — were victims of severe abuse. A 1998 UK government inquiry, citing “exceptional depravity” at four homes run by the Christian Brothers order in Australia, heard that a boy was the object of a competition between the brothers to see who could rape him 100 times.
The inquiries focused primarily on sexual abuse, not physical abuse or murder, but taken together, the reports showed almost limitless harm that was the result not just of individual cruelty but of systemic abuse.
In the United States, however, no such reckoning has taken place. Even today the stories of the orphanages are rarely told and barely heard, let alone recognized in any formal way by the government, the public, or the courts. The few times that orphanage abuse cases have been litigated in the US, the courts have remained, with a few exceptions, generally indifferent. Private settlements could be as little as a few thousand dollars. Government bodies have rarely pursued the allegations.
So in a journey that lasted four years, I went around the country, and even around the world, in search of the truth about this vast, unnarrated chapter of American experience. Eventually I focused on St. Joseph’s, where the former residents’ lawsuits had briefly forced the dark history into public view.
The former residents of St. Joseph’s told of being subjected to tortures — from the straightforwardly awful to the downright bizarre — that were occasionally administered as a special punishment but were often just a matter of course. Their tales were strikingly similar, each adding weight and credibility to the others. In these accounts, St. Joseph’s emerged as its own little universe, governed by a cruel logic, hidden behind brick walls just a few miles past the quaint streets of downtown Burlington.
When I first started looking, it seemed that all that remained of St. Joseph’s were deposition transcripts and the sharp, bitter memories of the few remaining survivors I was able to find. But over the course of years I found that there was far more to discover. More than the former residents themselves knew, and more than was uncovered during the 1990s legal battle. Through tens of thousands of pages of documents, some of them secret, as well as dozens of interviews, what I found at St. Joseph’s and other American orphanages was a vast and terrible matrix of corroboration.
The Diocese of Burlington, Vermont Catholic Charities, and the Sisters of Providence, the order of nuns who worked at St. Joseph’s, all chose not to speak with me about these allegations. At the end of my reporting, Monsignor John McDermott, of the Burlington Diocese, provided a brief statement: “Please know that the Diocese of Burlington treats allegations of child abuse seriously and procedures are in place for reporting to the proper authorities. While it cannot alter the past, the Diocese is doing everything it can to ensure children are protected.”
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Girl’s Father Tortured Her for a Decade to Make Her ‘Superhuman’
At least twice a week, an 8-year-old Maude Julien was made to grasp an electric fence for 10 minutes at a time without betraying any feeling — no twitching or grimacing, not even a blink.
The cruel ritual, supervised by her father, was considered a test of her willpower as he sought to turn her into the “ultimate survivor.”
“I held on with both hands, and it was most important to show no reaction at the moment of the power surges,” recalled Julien, now 60, to The Post. “I had to stay impassive.”
As if that weren’t disturbing enough, once a month, the little girl was locked overnight in a rat-infested cellar to “meditate about death.”
Julien, now a grandmother living in Paris, has chronicled her horrifying childhood in the memoir “The Only Girl in the World” (Little Brown, out Tuesday).
According to the book, she spent 18 years being mind-controlled by her paranoid dad, who belonged to an esoteric lodge of Freemasonry that dabbled in the occult and subscribed to a mishmash of oddball philosophies. He believed in a fallen world and thought that there would one day be an uprising of evil. In his mind, Maude had been chosen as a leader and his protector.
“He was most definitely insane and an alcoholic,” said Julien of her father, Louis Didier, who died in 1981 at age 79.
Didier, who became relatively wealthy from selling transport stock after World War II, created Maude for his own twisted purposes. It started when he adopted a 6-year-old girl, Jeannine, in 1936, then groomed her to become his wife.
In November 1957, Jeannine gave birth to the child whom her husband would put through experiments to raise the perfect “superhuman.”
The trio lived in an isolated mansion in northern France, where Julien was home-schooled and subjected to Didier’s countless “endurance tests.” These ranged from being dangled over a cliff and assisting in the slaughter of livestock, to drinking whiskey before having to walk in a straight line.
To this day, Julien has liver damage from all the alcohol her father forced on her.
For 10 years, between the ages 3 and 13, she was sexually abused by a laborer who worked on the estate.
Meanwhile, Julien was forbidden from leaving the compound for nearly a decade. Her only companions were her dog and two ponies whom she adored.
“I really think that, without my animals, I wouldn’t be alive today,” she said. “They gave me physical contact and warmth because nobody [in my family] was allowed to touch each other in the house.
“I learned love and compassion from them.”
She sought solace in books, though Didier dictated what she read. Eventually she became fond of Dostoyevsky and, particularly, “The Count of Monte Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas — which inspired Julien to dream of her escape.
Amazingly, despite the mind control and hypnosis, the girl resisted being totally drawn into her father’s “cult of three.” But she suffered from self-loathing and took to self-harm as a coping mechanism.
Mercifully, her savior came in 1972 in the form of a music tutor, Andre Molin, who arrived to teach her how to play the accordion and piano.
“He played along with my father for three years to gain his trust,” explained Julien of how Molin eventually helped free her from the house. “Then he got my dad’s permission to teach me at his shop in a nearby town and I eventually got a job there.”
When Julie was 18, Didier allowed her to wed a young musician she’d met during classes — with the caveat that she’d leave him after six months and return home a virgin.
She seized the opportunity and fled for good.
The six-year marriage produced a daughter, now 35. Julien later settled down with another man and had a second daughter in 1990. Julien is still estranged from her own mother, to whom the memoir is dedicated.
“She is a victim and I sent the book to her with a note,” she said. “She didn’t react directly but I heard through intermediaries that she was afraid and wasn’t happy I wrote it.”
Over the years, Julien has received intensive therapy to help cope with the traumas of the past. After receiving her psychology degree, she now treats patients of her own.
She admits that writing her memoir triggered flashbacks to her childhood horrors. But she’s relieved her story’s being published. She said: “I really want it to be a book of hope — I consider it an escape manual.”
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