Orphanage report: Investigators say authorities failed to pursue abuse claims

Published: Dec. 14, 2020 at 10:47 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 14, 2020 at 7:45 PM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - No evidence of murder but an acknowledgment of abuse: Those are the main findings of a more than two-year investigation into claims at a former orphanage in Burlington. Our Dom Amato explains how the state came up with the findings.

The old building on North Ave. is now part of a new housing complex, but it was once the St. Joseph’s Orphanage.

Attorney General T.J. Donovan says the state investigation uncovered evidence of abuse over several decades, and blames police and prosecutors for failing to investigate the allegations when they were first made.

Now, the orphans who once lived there are calling for more to be done to support them.

“We are determined to be heard and find justice,” Brenda Hannon, of the Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage said.

The group of more than 30 former residents of the Burlington Orphanage claim they were abused when they lived there as children. They are now calling on the Burlington Catholic Diocese, Vermont Catholic Charities, the Sisters of Providence and Vermont’s child protective services to take responsibility for what they went through.

“We acknowledge no one can bring back our childhood, take away the pain and shame we endured, nor untangle the mental and physical struggle many of us had to deal with in our adult lives,” Hannon said.

Among the group’s demands, face to face meetings for those involved with acknowledgment of what happened and an apology. Survivors say children were abused physically, mentally and sexually, and they have also made claims of children disappearing.

“You were put into custody of intolerant strangers with little or no child care. Some of them were actually sadistic,” Hannon said.

“There is a lack of corroborating evidence, whether it be medical reports or documentary evidence,” said T.J. Donovan, D-Vt. Attorney General.

Donovan helped lead the task force looking into the claims of abuse. He says there isn’t enough evidence to prove any children were murdered. He says it is clear abuse happened and children suffered but the statute of limitation has run out on the claims, making it impossible to bring a case. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington, Vermont Catholic Charities, the Department for Children and Families, as well as the Sisters of Providence all cooperated with the investigation. When the task force finished its nearly 300 page report, the Sisters of Providence had not produced documents the task force had requested.

Another problem for any potential court cases, the passage of time. Most of the alleged crimes happened decades ago, and most of the staff who worked at the orphanage then are no longer alive. Moving forward, the state plans to pursue a restorative justice process for survivors.

“It is my hope that through a restorative process, by seeking that restorative justice principle of repairing the harm done, we can bring peace, we can bring justice,” Donovan said.

We expect to hear more from the survivors of the St. Joseph’s Orphanage as the members say they are willing to come forward and share their stories.

Meanwhile, the Sisters of Providence, which cared for these children at St. Joseph’s have released a statement. They say they do not have any knowledge of the alleged acts which the task force put forward, and agree no criminal charges should be brought. Legal counsel for the group said over the course of 120 years, there were no doubt some difficult times, but they say the sisters strived to provide the best available care for orphans available at the time. The Sisters of Providence pray for peace and healing.

A joint statement by The Diocese, and Vermont Catholic Charities says in part,

“The Diocese continues to accept its full share of the blame for any sins of the past. We apologize for all hurt caused and for the personal shortcomings of human beings that came before us. There is much that is troubling and horrible to read in the report. The report reiterates clear testimony of claims of physical and sexual abuse of some children that lived at St. Joseph’s before it closed. We can never apologize enough to any survivors of abuse. Even though the orphanage closed in 1974, we are aware that managing the traumas they experienced is still difficult for these survivors. [Monday’s] 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.”

The full report:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Appendices Part 1

Appendices Part 2

Appendices Part 3

Appendices Part 4

Appendices Part 5

Appendices Part 6

Statement from Voices of St. Joseph’s

Statement from St. Joseph’s Orphanage Restorative Inquiry

Joint Statement from Vermont Catholic Charities and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington

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