A task force investigating allegations of murder at the long-shuttered St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage found no evidence to substantiate claims that children were killed there, according to a report released Monday.
But the task force did find credible evidence of rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse by the nuns and priests who operated the North Avenue orphanage — claims that officials say were never properly investigated at the time.
"It’s clear that abuse did occur at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, and that many children suffered,” Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said at a press conference Monday afternoon, moments after releasing a nearly 300-page report on the institution.
"Our community, and the institutions of the community, including law enforcement, turned a blind eye," Donovan said. "We did not see them. We did not hear them."
One deposition from 1996 featured a former orphanage resident named Sally Dale detailing how she saw a nun push a child from a fourth-floor window. Another claim involved a nun pushing a young girl down a staircase, after which the girl was allegedly never seen again.
Other former residents recalled various forms of abuse that Buzzfeed writer Christine Kenneally described as "straightforwardly awful to the downright bizarre."
In compiling its own report, the task force, with the help of Burlington Police Department investigators, set out to speak with anyone who either lived at the orphanage between 1940 and the time of its closure in 1974 or was related to someone who had. It managed to interview nearly 50 people, many of whom shared claims matching those from the Buzzfeed story, with descriptions of severe neglect and abuse.
One of the most common allegations was beatings. According to the report, survivors recalled nuns using wooden paddles, rosaries and rulers to punish children for seemingly any reason — transgressions as simple as not making the bed correctly or looking out the window, for instance. The beatings sometimes resulted in broken bones or teeth, with some survivors reporting the nuns were less likely to abuse children who they knew went home on the weekends.
A large percentage of survivors also alleged severe mental and emotional abuse, recalling for investigators how nuns would threaten them or say derogatory things about their parents. Many individuals recalled being locked in dark spaces — closets, attics, footlockers, old trunks. Some said there was a chair in the attic that the nuns tied them to.
"Survivors reported that there was no peace to be had at the Orphanage," reads one particularly striking passage of the report. "Children were not nurtured or treated with kindness and love. Many reported that they did not experience any form of healthy, safe, nurturing touch, such as a hug. One cried at the memory of strangers’ hugs during a parade through Burlington celebrating the end of World War II. After years at the Orphanage, it was the first time the survivor could remember having been held with affection."
Several people who spoke to investigators said they were frequently sexually abused by priests, sometimes with more than one adult present. Some survivors said nuns also sexually abused them, with stories that "ranged from babies to older children and included allegations of singular nuns abusing children, or nuns assisting priests in their abuse," the report reads.
The task force sought to corroborate what it could about the allegations. But since murder was the only crime that was not bound by a statute of limitation, detectives spent significant time seeking to uncover evidence that might prove any homicides occurred.
The task force requested documents from the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont Catholic Charities, and the Sisters of Providence, the order of nuns who worked at St. Joseph’s.
The first two organizations provided resident review files, tracking cards and two ledgers that purportedly documented every one of the more than 13,000 children who resided at the orphanage during its 120-year existence. But the Sisters of Providence refused to cooperate with the investigation.
The task force reviewed hundreds of death certificates from the City of Burlington — as well as news reports, police documents and medical records — in search of any proof that someone died at the orphanage.
Detectives also worked with survivors to pinpoint where some of the allegations were said to have occurred, and even met with an excavation foreman, who confirmed that no human remains were found while the orphanage was being redeveloped into the rental apartments it is today, the report said.
Donovan said investigators found "no credible evidence" to prove that any murders occurred at St. Joseph's. "We believe this case is closed," he said. "As in all cases, if new episodes were to emerge, we would assess that evidence and make the appropriate determination."
Donovan said the task force would have needed to find additional evidence beyond the recollections of the survivors to prove a murder charge: "A body or a death certificate — or any type of documentary evidence that this occurred."
"In the absence of that, you are left with testimony of children," he said. "And then you weigh the credibility of children and the time of 80, 70 years ago, [and decide] whether or not that by itself is sufficient to pursue an investigation. The determination was that it was not."
Both Donovan and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said they personally heard from some survivors and believed many of their allegations to be credible.
"In coming forward and sharing their stories, these former residents of the St. Joseph's orphanage have given our community a great gift," Weinberger said. "It is the gift of fully knowing our history — our true history."
Vermont last year eliminated the civil statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse. Donovan said his office was not planning on pursuing any civil claims against any of the Catholic organizations.
In a joint statement, the Diocese of Burlington and Vermont Catholic Charities said the report's findings were largely consistent with a previous investigation into the orphanage that took place in the 1990s, including the lack of evidence that any homicides occurred.
"Our hope is that this report will finally lay to rest these allegations of murder against the sisters," the statement read.
Yet the organizations acknowledged that the report nevertheless contained "troubling and horrible" allegations of physical and sexual abuse, and that the diocese was part of a "complete failure" by the system to provide oversight to the orphanage.
"The Diocese continues to accept its full share of the blame for any sins of the past," the statement reads. "We apologize for all hurt caused and for the personal shortcomings of human beings that came before us."
State and local officials acknowledged at the time of the task force's formation that the probe could end up focusing more on fact-finding than legal action, given the relevant statutes of limitation and that many of the victims and alleged perpetrators are elderly or dead. But they said they hoped the process would provide victims a chance to heal and speak regardless of whether charges arose.
With this in mind, the task force created a committee known as the St. Joseph's Restorative Inquiry in April 2019 to focus on repairing the harm caused at the orphanage. The group, led by an independent restorative justice professional, now meets regularly and has engaged in a number of initiatives, from a writer's group to the formation of a memorial committee.
Brenda Hannon and Walter Coltey attended the press conference as spokespersons for Voices of St Joseph's Orphanage, a group of 30-plus members who are the last surviving generation who lived at the home.
Hannon recalled the fear she and many of her peers felt after being sent to live at the orphanage under the custody of "intolerant strangers," some of whom "were actually sadistic."
"Life was unthinkable for thousands of children placed in that orphanage. We suffered physical, mental and in some cases sexual abuse," Hannon said. "We were threatened and punishment was harsh, swift and extreme. We were beaten with rods, locked in dark closets and trunks, and forced to eat our own vomited food."
The children of the orphanage — whom Hannon called "the forgotten ones" — had to suppress their fear and hide their trauma to survive, she said, and so revisiting those memories decades later "required a reluctant courage none of us knew we had."
The survivors group has made a number of requests to the Catholic organizations who were involved with the orphanage.
First, Hannon said, "we want an acknowledgement that what we say happened to us did indeed happen, and a sincere apology." The group also wants the organizations to pay for the therapies of any former orphanage resident who requests it, release all relevant records and work with the Vermont legislature to better protect vulnerable people from abuse.
The group said it did not yet have a formal response to the report given its size but was planning a press conference on Wednesday.
Hannon encouraged anyone who lived or worked at the orphanage and has not come forward do so.
"Truth deserves to be aired. Cover-up tactics should be widely exposed," she said. "We acknowledge that no one can give us back our childhood, take away the pain and shame we endured, nor untangle the mental and physical struggles many of us have had to deal with in our adult lives.
"However, we can — and we will — hold those accountable."