Abuse at Catholic Orphanages

No one listened.
Children with nuns and a priest at St. Joseph’s orphanage in Burlington, Vermont (©Free Press – USA TODAY NETWORK)

Our culture is crazy for orphan stories. From Harry Potter to The Last of Us to The Batman, from Demon Copperhead to A Series of Unfortunate Events, we just can’t get enough of a good orphan yarn. Our fairy tales—and Disney films—are based on abandoned, tormented children. But of course, these are fictional tales. No one likes to hear, or write, about the real thing.

I know because I tried. I stumbled across the real thing in Northwest Alaska at St. Mary’s Mission back in the 1990s and considered writing a book about it. But I didn’t have the stomach for the gory details. Dipping your toe into Cinderella or Anne of Green Gables is one thing. But spending a decade researching and living with the true horror is quite another.

Christine Kenneally did just that for her new book, Ghosts of the Orphanage: A Story of Mysterious Deaths, a Conspiracy of Silence, and a Search for Justice. She spent more than ten years gathering documents, police reports, letters, diaries, and depositions; reading through trial transcripts; and interviewing hundreds of people to tell us what went on behind closed doors for decades at St. Joseph’s, a Catholic orphanage in Burlington, Vermont. The stories are at first unbelievable, not only to the reader, but also to the authorities. But Kenneally—and the lawyers who fought the battles for these now-adult orphans—patiently and unflinchingly stitch together the brutal reality.

When Americans think of orphans they think of red-haired Annie or nineteenth-century Oliver Twist. It’s all safely in the past or a continent away. But Kenneally is here to tell us that those orphan tales are closer than we think, geographically and temporally. The book is a deep, depressing dive into the stories of children forgotten but still walking—grown—among us. Not ghosts as the title suggests, but flesh and blood, in search of healing.

For anyone who attended Catholic school in the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s, or even ’70s, some of what the nuns at St. Joseph’s did will sound familiar. I found myself flashing back to nuns slapping children across the face, hitting us with big wooden paddles, and making us kneel as a group for extended periods when a suspected perpetrator refused to come forward. For years I have written about, and laughed about, what the nuns did at my school, Our Lady of Czestochowa, in Jersey City, New Jersey. But the St. Joseph’s stories go beyond the typical—and no longer acceptable—corporal punishment some of us endured. They are no laughing matter, and reading this book made me realize my own nun stories weren’t funny either.

Ghosts of the Orphanage grew out of Kenneally’s BuzzFeed investigative piece published in 2018, which was viewed more than six million times over six months. Kenneally won the Deadline Club Award and was a finalist for the National Magazine Award. But her book is one of those books that you want to put down time and again because the details are just too awful.

Kenneally mentions not once, not twice, but nearly a dozen times that the children were forced to eat their own vomit by the vicious Sisters of Providence, who ran St. Joseph’s. They were also severely beaten, kicked down stairs, locked in freezing attics and water tanks, hung out windows, burned with matches, used as guinea pigs by a pharmaceutical company, and sexually abused, not only by the nuns but also by the priests who worked as chaplains overseeing the orphanage. As with Holocaust stories, it’s hard to look away from what Kenneally herself calls “a series of unrelenting gruesome events.” Reading the book is itself, at times, an act of masochism. This is not to say there were not happy days at St. Joseph’s. Children sang, celebrated Christmas, took part in sports, and received a thorough education. But the good times do not balance out the wretched reality.

Helping move the narrative forward are the well-sketched personalities, particularly those of attorney Robert Widman and survivor Sally Dale, who spent twenty-three years in the orphanage, first as a child and then as a worker. We care about these fully formed characters and so need to know if justice will ever come. Will the horror, embedded in survivors’ memories and now ours, ever end? Will they get their day in court? As the criminal case builds, as the witnesses grow in number, and as the sharp diocesan attorneys start their attack, the story becomes a gripping nailbiter.

As with the sexual-abuse scandal, the Catholic Church’s conspiracy, coverup, and refusal to make amends is nearly as mind-boggling and horrific as the abuse itself. For decades, no one would listen to the stories of these orphans. They were silenced and ignored not only by the Church, but even by their own families and by authorities who thought it was all too terrible to be believed. What’s most shocking is the systemic nature of it all—“the Catholic Church’s institutionalized sadism, glorification of suffering and how commonplace abuse was in its institutions,” as Kenneally writes. The abuses were constant, out in the open, and accepted. “It was not one priest at one time,” says one of the attorneys. “It was Dante’s inferno.”

As with the sexual-abuse scandal, the Catholic Church’s conspiracy, coverup, and refusal to make amends is nearly as mind-boggling and horrific as the abuse itself.

To show that St. Joseph’s was not an isolated case, Kenneally cuts between similar Catholic orphanage stories in Canada, Great Britain, and her native Australia, some involving the same order of nuns. But her main subject is St. Joseph’s, whose sheer number of survivors and abuses are sometimes hard to keep track of. A cast of characters at the front of the book would have helped. But as we find in the author’s notes at the back, these stories are just a few of the many Kenneally discovered.

At their peak in the 1930s, there were around 1,600 orphanages in the United States, with as many as 5 million children passing through their doors during the twentieth century. Many were not orphans at all, but were abandoned by those who couldn’t care for them, or simply taken from alcoholic or mentally ill parents. 

Many of the walking wounded repressed their memories and only came to think and speak about their years at St. Joseph’s when a support group was formed in the 1990s. But others, emotionally broken from years of experiencing and witnessing abuse, committed suicide, became homeless or addicted to drugs, or wound up in jail for their own violent or sexual offenses. Some, while still at St. Joseph’s in the late 1960s and ’70s, tried to burn the orphanage buildings down. Sally Dale herself contemplates suicide at one point, just so she doesn’t have to think about St. Joseph’s anymore.

The weak links in the book are the reports of deaths that residents say they witnessed at the hands of the nuns, deaths that Kenneally believes were covered up by the Catholic Church over the decades. There was the boy pushed by a nun out a fourth-story window who bounced on landing, the boy who froze to death when locked in the cupola staircase, the boy who was held by his feet over another staircase and dropped either intentionally or accidentally, and the boy who was thrown from a rowboat into a lake by nuns during a “sink-or-swim” lesson. There is the story of a nun smothering the illegitimate baby of another nun with a small satin pillow. Kenneally digs and digs, but in the end, no bodies turn up. “The deaths,” she writes, “still had a powerful aura of unreality.”

Is justice served? Only partially. A settlement is reached. No one gets their day in court. But after Kenneally’s BuzzFeed exposé, the statute of limitations on civil actions for childhood sexual abuse as well as for childhood physical abuse was lifted in Vermont. As we now know, post-Spotlight, it can take years for memories to resurface, and even more time to work up the courage to come forward. 

There are other small victories. In 2021, the St. Joseph’s Orphanage Task Force, set up by the attorney general to investigate the survivors’ claims, produced a report that officially validated many of the complaints. “No historical context,” the report states, “excuses the failure to protect these children.” The Sisters of Providence, whose order is based just over the border in Montreal, refused to cooperate with the investigation. “The goal of the church,” Kenneally writes, “is suprahuman and is measured in centuries: it has been working to control history.”

Though none of the nuns is punished, Kenneally names those who ran this “tiny totalitarian state”—Sister James Mary, Sister Jane of the Rosary, Sister Mary Vianney, Sister Claire of the Providence, Sister Noelle, and Sister Priscille, whom she visits and who admits to having pushed a girl out a window. Kenneally tells the backstories of these nuns, many of them who came from poor farm families in Canada and who were barely adults themselves when they entered the convent, ill-equipped to handle troubled abandoned children.

But at center stage are those who were abused, who are given their space and time to grieve—along with the reader—for their lost childhoods. We may not be able to right the past, but we can make the effort to listen to their stories.

Ghosts of the Orphanage
A Story of Mysterious Deaths, a Conspiracy of Silence, and a Search for Justice

Christine Kenneally
Public Affairs
$17.99 | 384 pp.

Published in the June 2023 issue: 

Helene Stapinski is a journalist and the author of four books, including The American Way: A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman, and Marilyn Monroe, published in February 2023 by Simon & Schuster.

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