Horrific allegations of abuse at Burlington orphanage

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) Damning allegations of abuse at an orphanage run by the Catholic Church in Burlington.

File photo

After a four-year probe by BuzzFeed News, WCAX News has an exclusive interview with the investigative reporter who pored over documents and video and shared that information with us.

We told you about the claims by former orphans when they first surfaced in the 1990s. Now, new information about those allegations that include torture, sex abuse and possibly even murder.

"Would they please, if at all possible, never let it happen to children again," Sally Dale said.

Dale described the horrors she says she endured as a child at St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington: daily beatings, sexual abuse, being locked in a small container in the attic. They are allegations she made under oath during the 1990s.

"She would make all the kids laugh at me and tell me what a bad girl I was," Dale said.

Now, those taped testimonies from Dale and other alleged victims have come to light after an extensive investigation by Christine Kenneally for BuzzFeed News.

"That was an incredible database about the history of St. Joseph's that had otherwise been hidden," Kenneally told WCAX News.

In the 1990s, WCAX News reported on the abuse allegations against the sisters who ran the Burlington orphanage until its closure in the '70s.

In this new report, alleged victims make even more sinister claims-- that some children were murdered: beaten to death, shoved out of windows and pushed out of rowboats.

"All the time I was there it happened. Every summer," said Ed Duprey, a former resident.

Sally Dale: All I said was, 'Did he drown?'
Lawyer: Who'd you say that to?
Sally Dale: To the nun. And she just said, 'He's gone home for good.'

Reporter Darren Perron: How credible are these allegations and how did you substantiate their stories?
Christine Kenneally: One of the most incredible things about these stories is that by themselves, they seem outlandish, fantastic or improbable. Once you understand how violent these places were, how brutal they were, these stories about murder start to make a lot more sense. Their stories matched. They were consistent. They described the same kind of abuse. They described the same weapons of abuse. The climate, fear, violence and humiliation.

Kenneally interviewed alleged victims again. She found death certificates even though the orphanage denied children died there. She tried to track down the nuns but that was tough because most used different names in the order. And many were dead. She found one, Sister Priscille, who admitted nuns were granted permission to beat children and that she witnessed a girl fall out of a window, but she denied pushing her as an alleged victim claims.

"And she just went (hand pushing motion)," said Patty Zeno, a former resident.

The Catholic Diocese settled some cases in the '90s. Many were dismissed. And there were no criminal charges. The church had time on its side. Statutes of limitations ran out, victims' memories and chronology were cloudy, so lawyers cast doubt on their credibility. And the events happened so long in the past, it was difficult to verify anything.

"We live now in a different world of when the litigation occurred," Kenneally said. "It was a world where any claims against clergy were simply not believed at all."

Kenneally says the church's subsequent sex abuse scandal and ongoing investigations into pedophile priests changed everything and may now give these alleged victims a voice, too.

"They have the same story that they were telling in the '90s," Kenneally said. "They deserve to be heard now and in a world where they'll be taken seriously."

Kenneally looked at allegations at orphanages around the world. Most countries admitted to the abuses but not the U.S. And with so much documentation at St. Joseph's, she focused her report on that one.

WCAX News spoke with Bishop Christopher Coyne Monday. He admits scandalous abuses took place at the orphanage and offered an apology on behalf of the church. However, he described the BuzzFeed report as sensational and the accusations of murder as urban myth, adding that if any of this occurred, why did no one come forward and why was nothing done about it?

You can hear the full interview with BuzzFeed News Investigative Reporter Christine Kenneally this Sunday at 7:30 a.m. on You Can Quote Me.