systemic abuse

For Decades, Nuns Brutally Abused and Killed Kids in Vermont Orphanage: Report

Sisters at an orphanage in 1968.
Sisters at an orphanage in 1968. Photo: USC Libraries/Corbis via Getty Images

Since the Boston Globe’s spotlight team ran more than 600 stories, in 2002, revealing that the Catholic Church had buried thousands of children’s sexual-abuse allegations against hundreds of priests, child molestation within the Church has become a major ongoing scandal. However, per a new bombshell investigation in BuzzFeed News, there exists another accusation of systemic abuse against the Church, one that is equally dark but less-known.

For decades now, countless adults who moved through the American orphanage system have been trying to speak out about the gut-wrenching conditions they endured in the now-defunct traditional system. Among other horrifying claims, they say that nuns regularly forced children to eat their own vomit, dangled them upside down out windows, and even murdered minors in their care by pushing them out of windows or leaving them to drown. To this day, though, the allegations have not fully come under the national spotlight.

Reporter Christine Kenneally cites numerous locations around the world where children were allegedly subjected to horrific abuse in orphanages and homes for minors, but her nearly 30,000-word report focuses on St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont. From the mid-1800s up until the orphanage closed in 1974, thousands of children passed through the building.

In the mid-1990s, journalists at the Burlington Free Press began to report extensively on allegations of child abuse and litigation surrounding the claims, and survivors started to come forward. One such person was Sally Dale, a woman who lived in the orphanage from age 2 to 23, who revealed her traumatic recollections to lawyer Robert Widman: She recalled a nun pushing a boy out of the window to a his death, witnessing a boy die by drowning, and being forced to kiss the dead body of a boy who had been electrocuted. She also claimed that a Sister sent her into a fire pit to retrieve a ball, which left her with blackened skin, and that she was molested by the resident chaplain.

In 1996, Widman filed lawsuits on the behalf of Dale and nearly 30 other residents against the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont, Catholic Charities, and the Sisters of Providence. In November of that year, Dale endured a 19-hour-long deposition, where defense lawyers attempted to discredit the survivors’ testimonies by calling them “antediluvian” and “impossibly stale.” However, it was around the time that some nuns and priests began to acknowledge that children were physically and sexually abused at St. Josephs.

By spring of 1998, the federal judge delivered major blows to the plaintiffs when he ruled that the survivors could not band together in a consolidated trial, and that the Church was not required to hand over letters that allegedly outlined child abuse, written by a lawyer who had previously worked on the case.

“Dear Bill … If L was caught not paying attention, the nuns would take a needle and regularly prick his fingertips,” read a letter to Bill O’Brien, the church’s attorney. Another read, “K remembers that Sister Madeline and Sister Claire … slapped her head and face, pulled her hair, struck her face with the backs of their hands, so that their rings split her lips, and tripped her and knocked her down.”

Many survivors only received paltry settlements, and never found the closure they sought. But those who have revisited this case todaymore than two decades after it first came to light — are still discovering details that corroborate the former orphanage residents’ testimonies. Kenneally writes that the one story that both she and Widman found difficult to believe was Dale’s about a boy who got electrocuted when he tried to crawl under a fence while wearing a metal helmet. But in the four years that she spent reporting this story, she finally found the death certificate — pieces of evidence that she and the lawyers struggled to uncover.

According to the certificate, 13-year-old Joseph Millette died from electrical burns in April 1955 at a power station, where he “crawled under a high tension wire and made contact through metal helmet.” The document may not state why the boy was climbing under the fence, but Dale — who died 18 years ago from cancer — would’ve argued that he was trying to run away from the orphanage.

Nuns Accused of Abusing, Killing Countless Kids in Orphanage