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.”