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BuzzFeed Investigation Details Decades Of Systemic Child Abuse At Vermont Orphanage


Over the last few years, the U.S. has come to terms with patterns of child abuse in the Catholic Church. In other countries, these investigations have extended to Catholic orphanages. Canada, Australia, the U.K. and other European countries have conducted government investigations that exposed patterns of horrific abuse at Catholic orphanages.

The U.S. has never had such a comprehensive accounting. And now a major investigation by BuzzFeed gives reason to believe that the same problems may have existed here in American orphanages. Christine Kenneally is an investigative reporter who spent years researching this story. Welcome to the program.

CHRISTINE KENNEALLY: Thank you, Ari. Thanks so much for having me.

SHAPIRO: Your reporting looks very closely at one orphanage in Burlington, Vt., called St. Joseph's. And one of the women at the center of the story is named Sally Dale. Tell us about her.

KENNEALLY: Sally Dale is important for a number of reasons, and one of them is that she went into this orphanage in the - around 1940, when she was 2 years old, and she didn't leave until more than 20 years later. So Sally Dale's entire childhood was really shaped by the orphanage.

Sally's also incredible because she was the first plaintiff who tried to take the Diocese of Burlington and the Sisters of Providence to court in the 1990s to get reparation and to get acknowledgement for what happened to children in the orphanage.

SHAPIRO: We're not going to describe the abuses in detail here. We will say that there was violence, torture, sexual abuse. And there are allegations that children died at the hands of nuns at the orphanage.

There was a lawsuit involving dozens of former residents, and none of their cases were successful. Some settled for a small amount of money. I wonder whether you think the outcome might've been different if a similar lawsuit had happened today instead.

KENNEALLY: I absolutely believe that the outcome would be very different. It was such a different world in the 1990s when this case first launched. People believe that these things can be possible in a way that they simply didn't believe in the 1990s.

That was one of the great tragedies of the litigation of Burlington. These plaintiffs came forward, and it took such courage and such bravery to tell those stories again. But there was this overwhelming sense for a number of them that people didn't even listen to their stories. They just couldn't believe that it might be possible.

SHAPIRO: You write that some-5 million children likely passed through orphanages in the U.S. in the 20th century alone. This orphanage in Vermont closed in the 1970s. But how likely do you think it is that the kind of abuse you documented at this one place happened at other orphanages in other parts of the country?

KENNEALLY: Yes, I know that it happened at other orphanages in other parts of the country. I talked to people across the country who had had similar experiences. And just 150 miles away in Albany in upstate New York in the 1990s, exactly the same kind of story erupted. People came forward and talked about what happened to them. Some people refused to believe them. In the Albany case, there was a police investigation. And there are similar stories and similar trials, or attempts to get a trial, across the country.

SHAPIRO: Your own country, Australia, has done a sweeping investigation of abuse at orphanages. So have many other countries, as we mentioned. Why do you think the U.S. has not done this kind of investigation?

KENNEALLY: You're absolutely right. There have been government inquiries all across the world. It's hard to say why, in the United States, these stories, for good and for bad, have ended up in the court system rather than as the subject of a government inquiry.

I actually think that maybe it's simply because now is the time for that to start happening. We've just seen this extraordinary grand jury investigation in Pennsylvania into the sexual abuse of children by parish priests. And I think that that marks the beginning of, perhaps, a greater kind of justice being delivered in the United States. I think people are ready to believe that the stories of the orphans could actually be true and to listen to them.

SHAPIRO: I know the Catholic Diocese gave you a very general statement expressing regret if anyone was abused, saying that nothing can be changed that happened in the past. More recently, the local station WCAX spoke with Bishop Christopher Coyne, who said scandalous abuses did take place at the orphanage. He apologized on behalf of the church.

But he described your reporting as sensational and said the accusations of murder are urban myth. He asked, if any of this occurred, why did no one come forward, and why was nothing done about it? How do you respond to that?

KENNEALLY: Well, I think, firstly, that that acknowledgement and apology is incredibly important. And I think it's a very important beginning, and I hope that there's a lot more of that to come.

But I will also encourage the bishop to read the article because it's literally about children either trying to report these awful events when they happened, or it explores, in a lot of detail, about the way that these children, who were essentially a captive population inside an orphanage, were unable to be heard in that system.

The story also actually references documents that the diocese is probably in possession of, which provide evidence that a number of priests who took the stand in the orphanage litigation in the 1990s and, you know, who professed great shock and disgust at the accusations were, in fact, themselves predators.

SHAPIRO: Christine Kenneally, thank you so much for talking with us about your reporting.

KENNEALLY: Thank you, Ari. I appreciate it.

SHAPIRO: Her investigation of abuse at St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington, Vt., appears in BuzzFeed.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGO PENGUIN'S "KAMALOKA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.