An investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News says she uncovered rampant abuse, including allegations of torture and murder, at a now-defunct Catholic orphanage in Vermont. She also claims the abuse was widespread in similar facilities across the entire United States.
The in-depth report comes from Christine Kenneally describes a horrific situation at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont, including anecdotes involving nuns physically abusing kids and — in one case — ordering older boys to “rape” a younger boy named Joseph.
At a reunion for “survivors” of St. Joseph’s, several former residents shared their stories. Among the victims were Sally Dale, who reportedly went into the orphanage at age two and didn’t leave for another 20 years, and a man by the name of Joseph Barquin.
It had been a dark and terrifying place run by an order of nuns called the Sisters of Providence. Barquin recalled a girl who was thrown down stairs, and he remembered the thin lines of blood that trickled out of her nose and ear afterward. He saw a little boy shaken into uncomprehending shock. He saw other children beaten over and over.
A nun at St. Joseph’s had dragged Barquin into an anteroom under the stairs and forcefully fondled him, and then she cut him with something very sharp. He didn’t know what it was; he just remembered that there was blood everywhere.
Sally remembered him saying that a nun told a group of older boys to rape him.
Then one woman spoke about how nuns wiped her face in her own vomit, and Sally started to remember that the same thing had happened to her. She could hear the voice of one sister telling her, after she threw up her food, You will not be this stubborn! You will sit and you will eat it.
Sally, who tried to sue the church that owned the facility in the 1990s but didn’t get very far, was just the beginning. In addition to the stories of several former victims at the orphanage, Kenneally says she’s heard similar ones throughout the U.S.
While many have praised Kenneally’s article, others have criticized it. Bishop Christopher Coyne admitted that abuses took place there and apologized on behalf of the Church, but also described the more serious allegations — including murder — as “urban myth.” Some have even likened the story to those involving the so-called “Satanic daycares,” which were commonly assailed in the 1980s before it was discovered that most of the stories were motivated by hysteria and the faulty nature of human memory.
The reporter was questioned on this point by NPR’s Ari Shapiro:
SHAPIRO: You write that some-5 million children likely passed through orphanages in the U.S. in the 20th century alone. This orphanage in Vermont closed in the 1970s. But how likely do you think it is that the kind of abuse you documented at this one place happened at other orphanages in other parts of the country?
KENNEALLY: Yes, I know that it happened at other orphanages in other parts of the country. I talked to people across the country who had had similar experiences. And just 150 miles away in Albany in upstate New York in the 1990s, exactly the same kind of story erupted. People came forward and talked about what happened to them. Some people refused to believe them. In the Albany case, there was a police investigation. And there are similar stories and similar trials, or attempts to get a trial, across the country.
SHAPIRO: I know the Catholic Diocese gave you a very general statement expressing regret if anyone was abused, saying that nothing can be changed that happened in the past. More recently, the local station WCAX spoke with Bishop Christopher Coyne, who said scandalous abuses did take place at the orphanage. He apologized on behalf of the church.
But he described your reporting as sensational and said the accusations of murder are urban myth. He asked, if any of this occurred, why did no one come forward, and why was nothing done about it? How do you respond to that?
KENNEALLY: Well, I think, firstly, that that acknowledgement and apology is incredibly important. And I think it’s a very important beginning, and I hope that there’s a lot more of that to come.
But I will also encourage the bishop to read the article because it’s literally about children either trying to report these awful events when they happened, or it explores, in a lot of detail, about the way that these children, who were essentially a captive population inside an orphanage, were unable to be heard in that system.
We probably will never know how true all the specifics are, or how widespread the problem is. That’s the thing about abuse: Some victims don’t realize it’s happening and some are afraid to report it even when they do. For now, we should listen to those who are speaking and consider our own responses to the Church on their behalf.