Burlington Police Will Investigate Claims of Abuse at St. Joseph's Orphanage | Off Message

Burlington Police Will Investigate Claims of Abuse at St. Joseph's Orphanage


The former orphanage - NATALIE WILLIAMS
  • Natalie Williams
  • The former orphanage
Updated at 4:48 p.m.

Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said his department will launch an inquiry into allegations made in a recent Buzzfeed story about decades of abuse at the St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage.

Del Pozo provided few details, but said he was meeting with the Vermont Attorney General's Office Friday and has been in discussions with Mayor Miro Weinberger about investigating the allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse at St. Joseph's. The Buzzfeed article includes allegations that children were killed.

The orphanage closed in 1974. The imposing North Avenue building became part of Burlington College before it was turned into housing.

"It's safe to say that the mayor and I feel it's in the interests of justice to offer a full accounting of the crimes," del Pozo said. "We feel it's the duty of the state to do so."

The Buzzfeed story, entitled "We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage," was the product of several years of investigating by journalist Christine Kenneally.

Many of the allegations had previously been documented in dozens of lawsuits filed by victims in the 1990s and extensive reporting on the orphanage, primarily by the Burlington Free Press.

Kenneally relied in part on depositions from former residents. In one of them, Sally Dale said in 1996 that she saw a child pushed from a fourth-floor window of the orphanage. Kenneally described the statement, preserved on videotape:

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.”

Kenneally wrote that she was unable to corroborate Dale's account. Years ago, she wrote, a diocese spokesman had told the Free Press it was "simply unbelievable."

There is no statute of limitations for murder in Vermont. But many of the alleged victims and perpetrators described in the Buzzfeed story are deceased or elderly. Dale died about four years after giving her deposition.

Del Pozo acknowledged the difficulties, but said the department would still try to investigate.

"These are cold cases, but cold cases are still cases," he said. "It's just about provability and the interests of justice. If nothing else, there is need for truth and reconciliation."

Ellen Kane, spokeswoman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, told Seven Days in an email: "The Diocese has no knowledge of any inquiry."

Late Friday, Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced plans to hold a press conference Monday morning with del Pozo, Weinberger, Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George and Vermont State Police to address the allegations at St. Joseph's.

In a statement to Seven Days, Weinberger wrote, “The allegations of abuse and violence at the former Burlington orphanage are horrific and demand investigation. The city has been reviewing options for formal action and we will be joining other civic leaders Monday morning to discuss our intentions with the public.”