One woman, who was so fond of the mother superior that she had stayed in touch with her for years, recalled that she was made to slap herself in the mouth. She said it was because she talked too much. In the s, said another, some children were sent to the attic in punishment and it scared them, but she felt they had been sent there because they were hateful. Being hit with the clappers, said another woman, made her a better person. A man said it was what he deserved. One woman recalled being thrown in the lake from a boat. One said her sister was shut in the closet.
One was punished for wetting the bed, and another was made to sleep in the same direction as the other girls with her hands under her head. The priests on the witness list were comfortable being questioned — never defensive, just resolute — and they gave nothing up. Father Foster, by then a monsignor, waited until the end of his deposition, then chided the lawyers for failing to ask him about one important topic.
Taking control of the moment, he delivered an impassioned speech praising all the sacrifices the nuns had made. The women had worked so hard, laboring through the day and sitting up till dawn with the children if they were sick. Nobody was perfect, and goodness knows, the children at St. Widman and Morris deposed about 20 nuns. Many had been born in Canada and were raised speaking French.
They joined the order when they were teenagers or young women, and from the time they entered the order, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Sisters of Providence nuns wore the same uniform and ate the same food. They talked about being proud of their long years of service, and about being moved around for most of their lives. Some had taught at local Catholic day schools or at another orphanage in Chicago or had returned to the motherhouse in Montreal. They were moved around inside the orphanage as well. In the s, Sister Noelle became a coiffeur — a beautician — for the nuns.
For the most part, the emotional tenor of the depositions was muted. The nuns were tentative, polite, careful. Sister Donat, once mother superior, acknowledged that the children did have to sleep with their hands on the pillow. It made supervision easier, she said. Sister Ladislas said she saw Sister Leontine slap a child in the face. Sister Miles said that she herself once slapped a child in the face. She felt terrible about it. Another used the paddle, but never on the skin, and only when it was badly needed.
Others said the rules of the order strictly forbade physical discipline. She had no problems, and she had never touched a child in anger. Yet Widman asked her about records he had obtained showing that she had hit a boy so hard that he was sent to the hospital. She had been sent away the same day to receive counseling from a psychiatrist in Montreal — a significant response, considering that corporal punishment for children was not uncommon in that era.
Sister Fernande de Grace readily admitted to the incident. She regretted it. It was only the paddle. How many times? How many times did the counselor crawl into bed with you? Give us a number. It had been hard enough for some of the orphanage survivors to tell Widman about the abuse they suffered. Most of them found it excruciating to sit in front of a bunch of fancy opposing lawyers and tell the story again and again, as it was subjected to hostile scrutiny. Dale Greene was 39 when he gave his deposition in Handsome and smart, he had been a gifted athlete and a top altar boy at St.
But now he was recovering from a stroke, which his doctor attributed to stress. He needed a cane to walk. Greene told the attorneys that a counselor assaulted him in his bed in the boys dorm at St. Over what period of time? Greene found it hard to say. The defense paused, lingered over another detail, and then returned to the counting.
Might have happened 10 or 20 times to you; is that accurate? Is that your best recollection today? I have no idea. But it went on for years. The defense attorneys asked plaintiffs to estimate the frequency of their rape or molestation by day, by week, by year, and then overall. Then they would get the plaintiff to compare the estimates and to count — so if it was x times a week, that would be y times in total, right?
David Borsykowsky asked one plaintiff, who said she was digitally raped by a nun, how far the nun had penetrated her. The woman had been 5 at the time. Defense attorneys asked plaintiffs if they had personally done anything to provoke being punched in the face. Or if they could precisely define sexual abuse. Sometimes the defense questioned whether a plaintiff had even been at the orphanage, until the plaintiff provided proof. Given all that, it was remarkable how few times plaintiffs blew up.
Greene struggled to explain. Greene had had enough. He launched into the most impassioned soliloquy of the entire litigation. He spoke for himself, and, whether or not he realized, for everyone else in his shoes. And I answered it already, the same question. I found out — when I found out that there was a lawsuit, I wanted to be involved in it. Not because I was going to get money. Because I was going to finally straighten out shit that happened to me all my life and should not have never happened.
And you guys here are representing people that you know nothing about. But you guys are upsetting me. The schooling was pretty good, and we got to do a lot of stuff as far as sports and shit like that. But I mean, overall it sucked — excuse me. Or you had to eat things a normal person would not eat; but because they served it, you had to eat it.
And if you got sick and threw up, you had to even eat your own puke. One deposition early in the litigation required Jack Sartore and the other defense attorneys to visit Sarasota, Florida. Widman and his wife, Cynthia, took them to Siesta Key, a barrier island, to go swimming and have dinner. The key was renowned for its pure white sand and clean, inviting water. For once, Widman recalled, Sartore, who had sternly avoided even minor friendly chitchat, submitted to being social. Maybe he would relax a little? It was a lovely day that turned into a beautiful evening. The group sat outdoors and ate a delicious fish dinner, and had a civil discussion about the case.
Widman believed that the litigation was hurting the orphans. It opened old wounds, and it created new ones. He told Sartore that his plaintiffs deserved an apology and that they needed to be able to get counseling for the rest of their lives. He asked Sartore if he would settle. By spring , a federal judge had ruled on two of the most important issues, and for the survivors of St.
And worse still, the St. They would each have to bring their own cases as isolated individuals. There would be no chance to stack the stories up, to show the similarities, to let the patterns emerge and overwhelm disbelief. The shattered plaintiffs were going to have to go it alone against the Catholic Church. Some of the plaintiffs dropped their cases. A judge dismissed another five. He ruled against Marilyn Noble because of the statute of limitations. She had written Orphan Girl No. But the memoir, she told me, was used as evidence that she had been aware for almost two decades of the damage she suffered.
The judge ruled that the statute of limitations barred her claims of emotional and physical abuse. Sally had once told someone about having been forced to eat vomit. She had told someone else that she had been beaten and banished to a terrifying attic. These incidents were enough, the judge said, to have obliged Sally to take legal action at that time, or to forever lose her chance.
Yes, he conceded, she said she told a social worker about the seminarians who molested her at the lake, but there were no records to show that her complaint was passed on to anyone who had the authority to investigate it. All along, the church had argued that if any abuse had taken place, it would have been the sole responsibility of the individual abuser — not the mother superior, not the order of nuns, not Vermont Catholic Charities , and not the diocese.
If the victim could not offer proof that they had reported the abuse to someone in authority, then those in authority were not responsible.
Millions of American children were placed in orphanages. Some didn’t make it out alive.
He believed that after hearing story after story after story, any reasonable person would agree. So Widman planned to appeal the rulings. Those appeals still faced long odds. The process could take a year. Some of the plaintiffs were unwell and might die. Others were already coming apart from the stress.
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And even if they all made it to the courtroom, there were no guarantees that they would win. But a victory for the plaintiffs could have catastrophic effects for the diocese — and for the church as a whole. US bishops, we now know, had been swapping pedophile priests among parishes and across state lines for decades, and they could do the math. If a precedent was set, an untold number of cases could follow. The path ahead had become far riskier for both sides.
In the end, Widman told me, he blinked and they blinked. In early , the defense agreed to settle. They should take some money now, while they still had a chance. But when she got her settlement check and saw the paltry dollar amount, she laughed out loud. She thought about the church and how much money it had and every cruel, awful, scarring thing the nuns and the priests had done.
Could you spare it? At least she paid off some of her bills. Leroy Baker, who had filed a suit with another attorney, got a call to tell him that the church had offered to settle. Baker testified that he had been molested and abused and emotionally devastated when he was at St. When they did, he said, he walked three blocks to his old landlord, paid the rent he owed, and headed to the closest bar. The money was gone in a week and a half. Sally Dale had wanted to keep fighting.
Having been abandoned at St. And then when they hauled her out of bed in the dark for special private tortures. Of all the orphans who had passed through St. She had suffered so much, and worked so hard for the lawsuit. She wanted her day in court, however brutal it might be. But there was nothing else to do. She said goodbye to Widman and to the others, put her papers in a thick leather briefcase, and went back to her quiet life with her husband in Middletown, Connecticut, baking cookies for the neighborhood children. It was a freezing day in January when I passed through a long-locked door and first set foot into what had once been St.
The beautiful, spooky old hulk of a building was dark and frigid, and as I walked through the hallways, the sound of my feet against the worn wood floors was amplified in the long corridors. In the cold winter light, the basement dining room, once an optimistic yellow, had an uneasy green tinge. Here and there the paint blistered. I tried to picture all the girls sitting here at their little tables, eating their food and keeping their heads down, dreading the consequences if they got sick. I walked up the stairs, past the polished wood posts, past exposed brick and moldering mortar, past the lattice-panel doorway that led to the confessional.
A dark corridor ran the length of the building, as it did on each of the three other floors. Polished by generations of children, it still reflected a dull gleam. After years of talking to former residents, and reading their words, I felt like I already knew every nook and corner. Here in the confessional, a young boy told a priest that another priest had touched him. Here on this floor, a young girl had trooped up and down, staggering with exhaustion in the middle of the night. Here was the freezing bathroom where a nun swung a girl by her back brace until she bounced off the walls.
Here at the elevator door a girl had clutched each side of the doorway in a mad panic as two nuns behind her tugged her into the small space. Here, finally, on the top floor, was a pinched, steep staircase caked in dust, and at the top of it, the attic. Every inch of the building below had been cataloged, labeled, and scrubbed.
But the vast, eerie attic, with its immense, crisscrossing beams and dark rafters, felt almost like a forest, a wild place. It occurred to me as I stepped nervously across the loft that the nuns were probably frightened of the attic too. Even when they punished children there, they often went up in pairs. Except maybe for Sister James Mary. Here, among the statues and the old chests, she had strapped an unhappy teenage girl into a chair that the nun said could fry her. I tried to conjure up Sally, to see her in the chair. I wanted to tell her that I knew what happened to her.
But all that was left were echoes and dust. More than anything else, what the St. What they got instead was a modest check, the amount of which was to be yet another secret. After the case was settled, Widman headed back to Florida, where he started taking on pro bono adoption cases and taught an ethics class at the University of Florida law school. Jack Sartore stayed in Burlington and specialized in business law. He has not worked for the Sisters again.
All the characters in the drama moved on, happily or unhappily, to the next events in their lives.
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All except the children whose deaths the plaintiffs said still haunted them. The boy who was pushed from the window; the boy who went underwater and never came back up; the girl who was thrown down the stairs; poor little Mary Clark who could not cry tears; Marvin Willette, the boy who drowned; and the boy in the coffin who had been burned.
The defense had leaned hard on the idea that the events in question were simply too far in the past — too old to prove or disprove, just lost to time. I had my own doubts about whether the stories could be properly investigated, let alone verified, after so many intervening decades. Actually, I had trouble believing they could all be true in the first place.
Could the nuns have been that indifferent to human life? I asked Widman what he thought on a visit to his Florida home. How could I believe the story of the burnt boy? He had been electrocuted after crawling under a fence? And he was wearing a metal helmet? And Sally had been made to kiss his blackened corpse? A jury would have been as skeptical as I was. The stories of the deaths had been weak, supported by very little evidence, in many cases not even a body. By the s the American orphanage system was winding down, as convents attracted fewer new recruits and fewer children were sent to institutions.
In his fiery deposition, Dale Greene talked about what it was like to see St. She kicked a nun and was escorted off the premises by the police. For her children, it was an ecstatic moment. There were so few boys in the dorm in those days that Greene pulled a bunch of lockers into an L-shape to make himself his own bedroom. He even went toe-to-toe with Sister Gertrude when she got in his face one too many times.
In , more than a century after they had arrived, the Sisters of Providence left North Avenue for good. I feared that the passage of time was destroying the chance to learn about what had happened at St. But then, after years of accumulating public records, private journals, legal transcripts, and personal interviews, I gained access to a cache of documents that Robert Widman never saw. In the early s, a judge ordered the Burlington Diocese to hand over the personnel files for dozens of priests who had been accused of sexual misconduct.
The files included letters from accusers, police investigations, transcripts from secret church tribunals, rehab reports, and a number of the orphanage settlement letters that Widman had fought so hard to get. The cache had never been made public. I came into possession of it near the end of my reporting. Only then did I begin to understand how much information had not been disclosed to Widman and the St. I began to see how much would have been possible — and might still be possible — to prove as fact.
There in the files was Father Foster, the priest who delivered that spontaneous lecture on the moral purity of the St. For all his eagerness to educate the lawyers, Foster had neglected to disclose one crucial fact: He had recently been sent to the St. Luke Institute in Maryland, where many priests accused of sexual abuse spent time. Luke had advised that Foster should have no unsupervised contact with minors.
But the evidence had been kept secret, and there was so much more. In all, I was stunned to discover that at least 11 and as many as 16 male clergy members who had lived or worked at St. Five laymen who worked at the orphanage were also accused or convicted of child sexual abuse. There were still more accused priests and laymen at the Burlington Diocese summer camps and other local Catholic institutions that the St. Crucially, from until the orphanage closed in , five of St. The first of those chaplains was Father Devoy, the one who Sally said pulled down her underpants.
Sartore had treated her objection to that gesture as so outlandish as to be almost incomprehensible. But Sally was not the only plaintiff who described being abused by Devoy. One man said the priest had taken him to the Hotel Vermont in the s and abused him there on the roof as the sun set.
David Borsykowsky deposed the man with a heavily disbelieving tone. The sheer number of priests implicated in sexual abuse — some of whom wielded ultimate power inside the walls of the orphanage — none of that was known to the plaintiffs in the s, let alone their lawyers and the judges. Father Devoy was also the priest whose body, plaintiffs claimed, lay in an open casket at the orphanage. Quite a few said they had been told to kiss him.
Devoy was chaplain for 20 years, and his death would have been a major moment in the life of the orphanage. Yet many nuns and priests were unaccountably vague about the event. Out of all the depositions I read, no nun or priest acknowledged that children had attended the funeral or seen Devoy in his coffin. Over the years, many people handed me folders, briefcases, boxes, and loose bundles of papers. Deep in one cardboard box, I opened a manila folder and found a photograph of a dead elderly priest in a coffin and a glum group of children standing beside it. Robert Devoy, whose body lay in state yesterday at the orphanage.
If the nuns and priests were so reluctant to talk about such an ordinary and innocent event as the passing of an elderly priest, what might they have withheld about dead children? I went through every death certificate for Chittenden County and Burlington from the s through to the s. It was easy to find the notice about Marvin Willette , the boy whose body had been hauled out of Lake Champlain and laid on the sandy shore. But he was the one child whose death was not in dispute, having been featured at the time on the front page of the local paper.
Sally had said that she and a nun came around the back of the orphanage and were looking toward the rear of the big building. Sally heard smashing glass and looked up. Above her a little boy was falling through the air, and behind him at a window on the fourth floor stood a nun with her hands pushed out.
When Sally asked her about what had just happened, the nun told her that it had not happened, and threatened her. In the end, I was not able to find any other witnesses or documents to confirm the story of the falling boy. It was the word of Sally Dale against the word of the church.
One man, Robert Cadorette, who was at St. She broke the glass with his head, but because he put a hand on either side of the window, she could not push him through. Sally herself said that Patty Zeno was pushed out a window by a nun called Sister Priscille, and Zeno independently confirmed it under oath. Zeno now has dementia, her daughter told me, so it was not possible for me to speak with her. So I went looking for Sister Priscille. Old nuns are extremely hard to track. The names by which the St. Some changed their names after Vatican II, others when they left the order.
But I found a list from the Sisters of Providence that included last known addresses of women who had left. I went through it in the hope that some were still around. Some women had died, and others simply could not be found. Sister Priscille was my last hope. I knocked at the Quebec apartment that was listed for her, and found a tiny, birdlike year-old with a huge smile on her face.
Yes, yes, she nodded. She was Sister Priscille. Welcoming me into her home, she took a seat in a large armchair, surrounded by half-full boxes. She was about to move apartments, she said. She was one of 15 children in a Quebec farm family. Like all her siblings, she helped her mother outside, regularly getting up at 3 a. When Priscille was 18, she told me, she joined the Sisters of Providence, to please her mother and to avoid having to marry. One of her first postings was to a hospital in Alberta.
She was allowed to read only religious books. She managed to sneak in some fun anyway, sliding down the banisters or swimming at the lake in summer or sledding down the big hill in winter. The girls, less. I said that some former residents of St. She told me that she put small skirts on the little children in the nursery to cover their privates when they took a bath. I told Sister Priscille that some of the former residents had also said the nuns punished them.
She said no, at first, then she said she knew of one such nun. She began to mention other nuns that she had heard were cruel. Then she said that once when she was 18 she had herself become so angry that she shook a boy. But she said that she felt terrible about it, and she reported it herself. I told Priscille that a woman named Patricia Zeno said that a nun at St.
She said that she had actually told Zeno to get out of the window, but that the girl had fallen. Another girl had grabbed Zeno. Priscille said that she had a photo and a statue of the mother superior that she would like to show me, but they had all been packed away. She gave me her new address and told me to visit her after she moved. Once she was unpacked, she said, she would show me what she had.
I did as she suggested, but the second time I visited Priscille, she looked disappointed to see me. But she invited me in and we sat down. I reminded her that she said she had a photo to show me. No, she said. She did not have any photo. She did not have any stories, either. I tried to engage her about what it was like to wear a habit, what the other nuns were like, whether she used to write home to her family. No, I explained, no one was going to put her in prison.
I knew sometimes nuns hit the children, but that some of them, like Priscille, had been just girls too. It worried me. If this was just a fantasy, what did it mean for the rest of her testimony? Then one night as I scrolled through the death certificates again, I found the death. It was an accident, not a deliberate killing. On April 18, , Joseph Millette, 13 years old, died from overwhelming electrical burns. According to a newspaper report , Joseph Millette, the son of Mr. A power line had sent 33, volts through his body.
He died two days later. Schmaldienst, now in his seventies, was living in Connecticut when I phoned him and told him that I was looking for a boy who was electrocuted at a power station in Burlington.
Schmaldienst and Millette had been hiking to Essex Junction and decided to follow the railroad tracks instead of hitchhike. They came across a chain-link fence with a hole in it. He was a few yards past the fence when he realized that something terrible had happened. Sally had said the boy ran away from St. Sally also said it was Sister Noelle who made her kiss the corpse, when she was young, but Sister Noelle didn't come to St.
So some of the facts were off. But Sally had indeed seen a little burnt boy who had been electrocuted.
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In fact, since at least 26 orphanage children, a nun, and a priest died, some of them right there at St. Sherry Huestis testified about watching a nun smother a baby that another nun had given birth to the night before. But I found two death certificates for babies from St. I also found another death certificate for a baby girl, who died shortly after a breech birth.
No one lived there. And Eskra himself was a hard man to find. He had spent time in a homeless shelter. I found what seemed to be his address, but he was never there. Eventually I tracked down his daughter in another state. When at last I reached her, she said that Eskra had died nine days earlier. Two years ago I stood in a church at St. We gazed at a spot on the floor where, she told me, years before she had watched a priest and some nuns put something beneath the floorboards.
As it was happening, she heard a baby cry. I heard similar tales from Catholic orphanages in other countries, too. An Irish man who grew up at a Christian Brothers school in Artane, near Dublin, told me that he saw a boy fall through a stairwell from the third floor. It was hours after bedtime, and he and a few other boys who were known to wet their bed were lined up for their late-night routine of visiting the toilet.
He recalled the horror of hearing a scream and a thump, and then seeing a child on the floor before him, bleeding through his mouth. The man explained to me that he was told the boy had been playing and fell, but it was the middle of the night. Three years ago Therese Williams in Adelaide, Australia, told me that in the s at Nazareth House in Western Australia, she saw a friend kicked so hard in the stomach by a nun that she landed with a scream and clutched her stomach as blood began to spurt from her mouth.
Everywhere there were orphanages, everywhere children were institutionalized, there seem to be stories in living memory of dead and missing and even murdered children. Instead they have focused largely on survivors of sexual abuse, with some acknowledgment of physical abuse.
The remains of more than people were discovered at an Irish laundry where unmarried pregnant teens were sent to work. As many as babies and children were found in unmarked graves at Smyllum Park, a Scottish orphanage, with no records to say who they were. The unmarked graves of 25 children were found at the site of an old boarding school in the Blackfeet Nation, Montana. The remains of dozens of boys were unearthed at the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. Some of these incidents prompted official inquiries; just last week, Scottish police arrested a dozen people, mostly nuns, for abuse at the Smyllum Park orphanage.
But in the United States, at least, nothing has prompted an investigation into the orphanage system as a whole. What happened to the millions of children who survived it — and to the unknowable numbers who did not — remains a secret and a shame. Rob looked like his mother, who had died 18 years before of lung cancer. Gentle and immediately likable, he was 47 and recently retired from his job as a corrections officer. I thought of the day that Sally was interviewed by the psychiatrists for the defense.
She said she just wanted the church to carry its own baggage for a while. The case held copies of the letters that Sally had written to Widman. My call had prompted Rob to read them for the first time. He had found them painful and intensely moving. He knew it upset his mother, and that upset him.
When Sally talked about the orphanage, Rob would jump around and distract her and try to make her laugh. He understood that she had been terribly hurt there, but still, he found her stories pretty hard to believe. Sally had been a loving mom. She was always particularly kind to children, welcoming in neighborhood kids and baking them cookies. Her house was full of cheery little knickknacks, like small china animals, but everything was always exactly where it was supposed to be.
Rob used to tease her by taking one little item and putting it in another room. Sally always went to bed at 8 p. She always left half or more uneaten. Rob never knew why. I told him that at St. Before agreeing to let me see the documents in her old briefcase, Rob asked if I was out to make his mother look like a crazy liar. I told him that I had found evidence that supported a lot of what she said.
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As a bold response, she answers a Mail-Order Bride ad without knowing what future awaits her…. Instead, he issues an ultimatum — submit to him in the bedroom, or go to jail. But being back in Smithville means facing Alex, her first love.