After two years, a taskforce investigating murder allegations at the long-shuttered Saint Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington determined that children were likely physically, sexually and emotionally abused for years — though no credible evidence suggested murder.
“This was a failure of the state criminal justice system not to investigate the allegations when they occurred,” said Attorney General TJ Donovan at a virtual press conference last month, where Mayor Miro Weinberger, Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad and two former members of the orphanage joined him to present their report.
“It’s clear that abuse did occur at the orphanage and that many children suffered,” said Donovan. “Oftentimes the abuse they suffered was emotional and traumatic. It may have never left a scar or a bruise, but it indelibly changed these young peoples’ lives. Fifty, 60 years later they still suffer from the abuse.”
Donovan’s office created the taskforce in 2018, after the publication of a provocative Buzzfeed article (“We Saw Nuns Kill Children”) detailing murder allegations and gruesome abuse by the nuns who ran the orphanage, the Sisters of Providence.
One former orphanage member recalled seeing a nun throw a boy out of a four-story window, a story which she retold in a 1996 deposition. Other stories included nuns dangling children outside of windows or forcing children to eat their own vomit.
“It was clear to me that we needed an official accounting in order to bring some resolution to this troubled period of Burlington’s history,” Weinberger said. To the former orphanage members, he attributed “immense bravery” and strength in participating in the “painful work of accountability.”
“It took us far too long for you to be heard but I hope you will see a record of your experiences in the report released today. We hear you now,” Weinberger said.
He further acknowledged that the nuns running the orphanage failed the children there.
“The whole community bears some responsibility,” he said.
Donovan ruled out an investigation into claims of abuse at the orphanage because they are too old to prosecute under Vermont’s statute of limitations.
Two representatives from the orphanage joined the call to read a statement from the survivors, dubbed the Voices of Saint Joseph’s.
Walter Coltey lived at the orphanage in the 1950s. “We are the last generation of children at Saint Joseph’s. There are not many of us left,” he said. “Our main goal is for this to never, and I mean never, happen to another child.”
Fellow member Brenda Hannon lived at the orphanage from 1959 until the summer of 1968. She remembered the nuns’ punishment being “harsh, swift and extreme.”
“We were the forgotten ones; the children who had to suppress and hide trauma to survive. We are here today to have our voices heard,” read Hannon. “The truth deserves to be aired. Cover-up tactics should be widely exposed. We acknowledge that no one can give us back our childhood, but we can and we will hold those accountable: the Burlington Catholic Dioceses, the Sisters of Providence, the State Department of Children and Families, VT Catholic Charities. They are responsible for what happened to us. We are determined to find justice.”
Both the Roman Catholic Diocese of Vermont and Catholic Charities cooperated in the taskforce’s investigation, but the Sisters of Providence — headquartered in Canada — did not.
Christine Kenneally, the author of the breakthrough Buzzfeed article, tuned into the press conference to ask if the taskforce was granted access to the Sisters’ records and how much the absence of credible evidence might be affected by the records.
Donovan replied that the nuns did not cooperate with the investigation, nor did they release any of their records.
“They have fifth amendment due process rights. There is no obligation that they cooperate with law enforcement,” he said, adding that he could not speculate that the absence of said records evidences criminal conduct.
Hannon called for further transparency from the state Roman Catholic Diocese. “Bishop (Christopher) Coyne said he would release records. He released them to the police department, but not to the victims. Is this what he considers cooperation?” she asked.
In addition to conducting an investigation, the taskforce was charged with creating a restorative process to work with the Voices of Saint Joseph’s Orphanage and survivors to find some healing and reconciliation in the absence of justice.
“I hope through a restorative process we can bring peace; we can bring justice; we can bring reconciliation for so many survivors who still struggle today,” Donovan said.
In one early effort, the Department of Children and Families is conducting an exhaustive search to retrieve and share family files related to former orphanage members.
Upon questioning, Donovan reiterated that his own office and the institutions in place — DCF and the police department — failed to do their job, to the detriment of thousands of children.
“We didn’t care. Part of the process we have to do is admit that hard truth,” Donovan said. “It’s important that institutions admit our failures. That’s part of the process of admission and acknowledgment, to start to carve a path to get to full accountability and justice.”