Probe Into Defunct Vt. Orphanage Results in Recognition of Abuse, No Murder Charge

Investigators examined claims of harm to children at the long-closed St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington

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A task force that probed reports of decades-old abuse and even claims of homicide inside a former Catholic orphanage released a report Monday that was more than two years in the making.

The lengthy document recognized many years of trauma and abuse suffered by children at the defunct St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, but could not make a case for the most serious allegations by some former residents.

"The criminal case is closed," said Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, who announced there were no findings to back a murder charge. "We reserve the right to reopen it, should new information emerge."

Donovan paused several times in his presentation to acknowledge the pain of former residents of the orphanage who he firmly believes experienced abuse and other trauma at the hands of adults.

"Some of them were actually sadistic," recalled Brenda Hannon, describing nuns and other orphanage staffers.

Hannon spent time in the institution as a child and is now co-leader of a group called Voices of St. Joseph's Orphanage, which advocates for people who lived in the center as kids.

The group has several requests, Hannon said, including face-to-face meetings with the Sisters of Providence. That Catholic order is today located in Canada, but ran the charity home in Burlington for more than a century, closing it in 1974.

Hannon said the group also wants to see changes made to Vermont's laws around statutes of limitations, which affect whether old crimes can be prosecuted.

Marc Wennberg, a restorative justice expert working closely with Voices of St. Joseph's Orphanage, added that a monument to the more than 13,000 kids who came through the orphanage could additionally be installed in Burlington.

That would be part of a healing process that is now underway—and will continue moving forward, Wennberg said.

"Our main goal is for this to never, and I mean never, happen to another child," said Walter Coltey, a co-leader of Voices of St. Joseph's Orphanage who also spent time there as a child.

The release of the report came more than two years after the formation of a city and state task force that looked into claims children were regularly abused at the facility.

The group launched following an explosive 2018 piece from BuzzFeed that unearthed allegations of a handful of killings.

"I saw somebody push a boy out a window," former orphanage resident Sally Dale said in legal deposition video posted as part of the 2018 BuzzFeed article. "I knew it was a nun because she had the habit."

Modern investigators pored through old records and heard voices of people who lived at the orphanage as children and came forward when the probe was opened.

While the lack of corroborating evidence means there is no murder case at the moment, statutes of limitations on other possible crimes—including physical abuse—have passed.

Still, the attorney general and Burlington's mayor noted abuse at the orphanage was the result of significant societal failures.

Law enforcement, social welfare agencies, and the community as a whole should've done more to recognize the suffering of children, Donovan and Mayor Miro Weinberger said.

"The harm incurred by many of the residents still resonates today," Donovan said at Monday's announcement.

"To those residents, I want to say it took us far too long for you to be heard," Weinberger added. "But I hope that you see a record of your experience reflected in this report released today and know we hear you now."

In a written statement, Burlington's Catholic Bishop, Christopher Coyne, said his 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.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington also said it is confident its institutions today are safe spaces, thanks to contemporary policies.

The report from the St. Joseph's Orphanage Task Force is housed on the website of the Vermont Attorney General. It is in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. Appendices to the document are available in six parts: Appendices Part 1, Appendices Part 2, Appendices Part 3; Appendices Part 4, Appendices Part 5, and Appendices Part 6.

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