A city and state task force was announced Monday to look into decades-old claims of physical and sexual abuse of children at a defunct Catholic-run orphanage in Burlington, Vermont — with a goal of securing justice, listening to the experiences of survivors and avoiding a repeat of past mistakes in the community.
"We're committed to doing a thorough investigation," Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Monday in announcing the task force.
The group is made up of prosecutors, police and political leaders, who have pledged to look into claims children were regularly harmed inside the St. Joseph's Orphanage, which operated for more than a century before it closed in 1974.
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Long rumored, and later discussed in local newspaper reports in the 1990s, the stories from St. Joseph's resurfaced this summer in an explosive article for BuzzFeed News.
That piece, from investigative contributor Christine Kenneally, described not just accounts of physical and sexual abuse, but also allegations of murder, including from a woman who said she witnessed a nun kill a child.
"I saw somebody push a boy out a window," former St. Joseph's resident Sally Dale said in unearthed deposition video accompanying the BuzzFeed News story. "I knew it was a nun, because she had the habit."
Members of the task force acknowledged Monday how hard it's going to be to track down details on decades-old claims, especially with so many people involved now dead, and legal statues of limitations in place — though not for murder or aggravated sexual assault.
Other challenges will likely include incomplete records and the fact the nuns from the order of the Sisters of Providence, who staffed the orphanage, have migrated to Montreal.
Still, the task force said the community simply must learn from any past mistakes, so that people — especially the most vulnerable — can be protected from future risk of harm.
"There are some challenges with this investigation," Donovan acknowledged. "But there should be no challenge to bringing truth and reconciliation and closure and justice for victims."
"It sounds like other countries have started to grapple with this, but America hasn't yet," Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said of allegations of abuse within institutions such as orphanages. "And we're starting that work with this investigation."
Bishop Christopher Coyne of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington promised Sunday to cooperate with the new task force's work, saying many records have already been handed over for other investigations.
"It's no longer business in the old way," Coyne said, referring to openness that has grown within the church to listening to claims of abuse and working with investigators. "The only way we can get to the truth of these matters is to be cooperative. And the only way we can deal with it and heal is to let the light shine on it."
Louise Piche of Shelburne attended the announcement of the task force's formation Monday. She told reporters she lived at the orphanage in the late 1940s, when her mom was too sick to care for her and her dad needed to work. Her family, at the time, lived in Winooski.
Piche said she remembers beatings, kids being locked in closets as punishment, and fears over sexual abuse after witnessing children leaving private meetings with a priest holding a silver coin or another gift.
"You were hit a fair amount," Piche recalled.
However, Piche said she never personally knew of a killing.
Piche, who went on to work in education, said she hopes the formation of the task force will encourage greater oversight of institutions in the future, helping communities to focus on ways to protect vulnerable populations.
Piche also said she hopes the task force's promise to listen to and respect the experiences of people who report abuse will help others find healing.
"My coming here today is to heal this — heal the pain that's in the belly," Piche said. "Not just for myself, but also, my sister never quite recovered."
Piche noted she believes that the task force members should not go about their work with any anti-Catholic, anti-church or anti-faith attitudes, because she said there is "great goodness" in the institutions, as well.
Rather, Piche said she wants the takeaway from the work to be an understanding and accounting of what happened at the orphanage and why — specifically — any systemic organization allowed any abuses to continue.
Mayor Weinberger said his office is currently working to set up ways to help people come forward and share their experiences at the orphanage, no matter where they now live.
The task force members said there is no set timeline for the group to complete its work.