Orphanage investigation finds no crimes, but abuse occurred
MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — Vermont’s top law enforcement officer said Monday a two-year investigation into allegations of murder at a long-closed Burlington orphanage found no evidence of such crimes and the criminal investigation is over.
In releasing the report, Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Monday it is clear that children suffered while staying at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, which closed in 1974, and the Vermont law enforcement community failed to protect those children.
“It is clear clear that abuse did occur at St. Joseph’s Orphanage and that many children suffered,” Donovan said during an online news conference. “As I said, that when we have been prevented from conducting an investigation as a result of the statute of limitations, the harm incurred by many of the residents still resonates today.”
He said that if additional information is found the criminal investigation could resume.
When it opened in the mid-1850s the orphanage was operated by Canadian religious order and then until its closure by Vermont Catholic Charities, a part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.
In a Monday statement, the Diocese said church officials cooperated with the task force and provided access to records and staff members.
It said the state’s investigation was “substantially consistent” with previous investigations into the orphanage and noted there was no evidence of murders. But the diocese also said there was a complete failure of the system to protect the children and “the Diocese continues to accept its full share of the blame.”
“We apologize for all hurt caused and for the personal shortcomings of human beings that came before us,” the diocese said. “There is much that is troubling and horrible to read in the report.”
The investigation by Donovan’s office, the Burlington police, state police and others was launched after a 2018 report in Buzzfeed News that included allegations of a boy being thrown from a window to his death, a girl forced to slap herself 50 times and children being locked in an attic. There were also allegations of sexual abuse. There is no statute of limitations for murder.
After the news conference, Christine Kenneally, the author of the Buzzfeed article, said in an email she was writing a book and working on a documentary about the orphanage that would include additional information that came to her after the original was published.
She said the criminal investigation “was a really important step,” but it was incomplete.
Many of the stories in the Buzzfeed article were reported by the Burlington Free Press in the 1990s. At one point, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington provided $5,000 payments to an estimated 60 former residents to settle civil lawsuits.
Investigators conducted 48 interviews with individuals who stayed at the orphanage from the 1940s until it closed or a close family member of children who stayed there.
Brenda Hannon, who lived at the orphanage from 1959 until 1968, read what she described as a collective statement by the former children of St. Joseph’s orphanage, an adult group of more than 30 people who are the last survivors of the orphanage.
“We were the forgotten ones. The children who had to hide and suppress and hide our trauma just to survive all those years ago,” she said. “Revisiting those memories and giving voice to the sexual, physical and mental abuse perpetrated on us required a reluctant courage none of us knew we had.”
She said they’d like more information from the diocese, have face-to-face meetings with the leaders of the responsible groups, have the diocese pay for therapy for survivors and have the Vermont Legislature pass a law to eliminate the statute of limitations in abuse cases.
“We want an acknowledgment that what we say happened to us, did indeed happen and a sincere apology,” she said.
There are also discussions about erecting a memorial of some sort to the children.
The orphanage was housed in a giant building on Burlington’s North Avenue that went on to become the offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. The property is now being redeveloped into hundreds of units of housing, a park and access to the nearby Lake Champlain.