The newest exhibit at the Vermont History Museum documents a painful legacy, but it's one survivors of childhood abuse and trauma say needs to be heard as part of their healing process.
"This cannot be allowed to happen again," said Katelin Hoffman, referring to the abuse she experienced at the now-defunct St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington when she was in her early teens.
Hoffman and others have reported they were routinely harmed at the facility that closed in 1974. Some said, as a particularly shocking example, they were even forced by staff to eat their own vomit when they were sick.
"At night, they’d come in after the kids were asleep and pull them out of bed and beat them," Hoffman recalled of orphanage staffers in an interview Monday with NECN.
Run by a religious order no longer operating in Vermont, the former orphanage was the subject of a lengthy probe by Attorney General T.J. Donovan, D-Vermont, that ended in 2020.
"The harm incurred by many residents still resonates today," Donovan acknowledged in 2020.
"To those residents, I want to say it took us far too long for you to be heard, but I hope that you see a record of your experience reflected in this report released today and know we hear you now," Mayor Miro Weinberger, D-Burlington, said at the conclusion of the probe.
While the multi-agency investigation resulted in recognition of past abuse, it could find no conclusive evidence of murder taking place at the orphanage. That was alleged by some former residents in an explosive 2018 article in BuzzFeed which refocused attention on the closed facility.
The attorney general’s formation of the task force followed that high-profile BuzzFeed article.
The new exhibit is a collaboration between the Vermont Folklife Center and the St. Joseph’s Orphanage Restorative Inquiry. It incorporates the voices of survivors in audio recordings, which visitors access using their smartphones.
"If a child comes from a bad environment, don’t you want to make their environment better?" project participant Marion Johnson asks in one of the recordings.
Another audio file included in the exhibit, from Coralyn Guidry, urges people to "just move forward with love."
In addition to documenting what happened, the exhibit traces a journey of self-advocacy, noted restorative justice consultant Marc Wennberg.
"Their mission is to ensure no child ever experiences what they experienced," Wennberg said of the grown-up kids of St. Joe’s.
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Wennberg worked with those survivor-advocates as they successfully pushed for a new state law which wipes away old time limits on filing civil lawsuits in abuse cases.
A memorial and contemplative park space are also in the works for Burlington, near the former orphanage, Wennberg noted.
"It’s our responsibility as a community to protect the most vulnerable, and I think that’s what this exhibit speaks to," Wennberg said. "And that’s what the participants speak to, as well."
Retired journalist Sam Hemingway wrote about the orphanage for The Burlington Free Press in the 1990s, before stories like these were as believed or as listened to as they are today.
"It’s incredibly brave to do what they did," Hemingway said of the people who long advocated for awareness about what life in the orphanage was like for them. "This is a story about people who had every right to give up, and they didn’t. They persevered, they’ve been believed, and that’s a great inspiration for anybody who feels the chips are stacked against them."
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington has insisted church institutions are now safe spaces, thanks to contemporary policies.
In a written statement issued when the attorney general’s 2020 report was released, Burlington's Catholic Bishop, Christopher Coyne, said the diocese takes full responsibility for its share of any past sins. Coyne also apologized to anyone who was hurt at the orphanage, and pledged to continue listening to survivors.
That kind of promise came too late, though, for Katelin Hoffman. Still, she told NECN participating in the creation of the exhibit has helped her personal healing process.
“I think for almost all the others, too,” Hoffman said. “It really helps — getting recognized and getting validated.”
The exhibit runs through July 30 at the Vermont History Museum on State Street, near the Vermont State House.
In the future, there are plans to tour the exhibit to other locations, Wennberg added.