Former St. Joseph’s Residents Say Their Childhood Pain Lingers | Off Message

Former St. Joseph’s Residents Say Their Childhood Pain Lingers

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The former orphanage - NATALIE WILLIAMS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Natalie Williams ©️ Seven Days
  • The former orphanage

Thirteen former residents of the St. Joseph’s Orphanage responded on Wednesday to the long-awaited investigative report released earlier this week, saying the psychological trauma of their childhood experiences continues to take an incalculable toll.

Walter Coltey, who lived in the orphanage from 1953 to 1959, said that he is estranged from his two grown children because he brought them up the only way he knew — with belt-lashings and severe punishments like he endured at the hands of the nuns who staffed the children's home.

Former resident Debi Gevry-Ellsworth said she didn’t experience a real hug until she was 13 years old. As an adult, she said, she was so afraid of hurting her own children that she withheld love and affection.

“I’m still trying to repair that damage,” Gevry-Ellsworth said.

The survivors spoke in the wake of a 286-page report on the Burlington facility published on Monday by the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, marking the culmination of a two-year inquiry that found credible evidence of widespread physical, emotional and sexual abuse. But investigators did not find evidence of the murders described in an August 2018 BuzzFeed story by Christine Kenneally, “We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage,” which prompted the investigation. Murder would have been the only crime not bound by a statute of limitations.

The former residents were members of Voices of St. Joseph’s, a group that has been meeting weekly since 2019. Several members expressed gratitude to the task force that conducted the investigation; others voiced intense frustration at its inadequacy.

“Six decades later, you want to help!” shouted Maura Labelle, who lived at St. Joseph’s for six months in 1961. While she was there, she said, she saw a nun deliberately drop a boy on his head. “When all the stuff has disappeared, when people are dead and we can’t get help anymore!”

In a joint statement issued on Monday, Vermont Catholic Charities and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington said that the report “echoes the investigations, reports, and legal settlements that took place in the 1990s and is a vivid reminder for some of what they endured. Many, if not all of the sisters and staff who worked at the orphanage are no longer alive. There is no chance for the survivors to meet face-to-face with them, no chance to hear even an apology from them.”

In April 2019, the task force that produced the report established the St. Joseph's Restorative Inquiry, an ongoing initiative focused on providing support and healing to those who endured abuse at the hands of nuns and priests. That group, led by a restorative justice professional, has several specific requests moving forward, including the release of all records held by the diocese and Vermont Catholic Charities pertaining to orphanage residents and the repeal of Vermont’s statute of limitations on civil claims of mental and physical abuse. Representatives from the restorative justice group plan to meet with state lawmakers in January in hopes of securing sponsorship of a bill.

“Some of us have done years and years of therapy at a very high cost, and some of us haven’t even had the money for that,” said Gene Clark, who lived at St. Joseph’s from 1964 to 1965. At a minimum, he said, survivors should receive financial restitution.

Cheri Gevry, Debi Gevry-Ellsworth’s sister, said that restitution should be just one part of the remediation process; in her view, the city should erect a memorial in downtown Burlington, a reminder of the abuse that hid for years in plain sight.

“We were paraded down North Avenue, two by two, in public view,” said Gevry. “And nobody knew what was going on.”