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.”
Read entire article