The Times & The Sunday Times
I see a woman who has lived. I see a woman still standing. I see a year-old mother of four in the lines of laughter and age etched on my face. I see a woman who cares deeply about the world she lives in. I see a woman who wants to do better and be a better version of herself. I see me. I feel like I am doing the best job I can. I shout and sometimes cry. I make mistakes.
I get up yet again at 6 a. I put one foot in front or another. I try. Some days, simply doing that is enough. We want to hear your story. Join Us. You can also browse from over health conditions. Submit a Story. Join Us Log In. Want the best Mighty stories emailed to you? No, thank you. There was a problem with the address entered. Please try again. Many of the orphans went on to marry, and to have children and grandchildren, without letting on that they had spent any time in an orphanage. Some, their trust forever shattered, had been unable to forge any close connections.
Robert Widman, the attorney who sat beside Sally, offered them a chance to be heard, and to force the world outside the orphanage to reckon with what went on inside its walls. That legal effort lasted three years. Decades later, he described it as one of the most wrenching cases of his life. For the former residents of St. It was a chance most of them had never had before: to be heard, and maybe believed.
For the Catholic Church, too, the stakes were enormous. If the Burlington plaintiffs won, it could create a precedent and encourage civil cases at a massive scale. The financial consequences would be hard to fathom. Widman and his band of orphans posed a profound threat, and the church was going to bring all its might to oppose it.
Philip White was sitting in his large, third-floor law office one afternoon in when the mysterious caller arrived. He said his name was Joseph Barquin. White invited him to have a seat and tell his story.
Barquin asked White to send his secretary out so the two men could speak privately. Barquin said he had recently married, and that his new wife had been shocked by the sight of terrible scars on his genitals. Barquin told White what he had told her: that in the early s, when he was a young boy, he had spent a few years in an orphanage called St. It had been a dark and terrifying place run by an order of nuns called the Sisters of Providence. Barquin recalled a girl who was thrown down stairs, and he remembered the thin lines of blood that trickled out of her nose and ear afterward.
He saw a little boy shaken into uncomprehending shock. He saw other children beaten over and over. A nun at St. To get help with the cost, and to get an apology, Barquin spoke to two priests at the diocese, but he received very little response. Now he wanted to sue. He had come to the right lawyer. As a prosecutor in Newport, Vermont, and then as a private attorney, White had devoted his career to challenging and changing the prevailing wisdom about young victims of sexual abuse.
Before , White told me, social services typically steered child abuse victims away from court, because the process was thought to be too traumatic for the children and the cases were too hard to prove. So he and some of his colleagues brought together social services, police, and probation officers and created a new set of protocols for how abuse should be addressed.
White and his colleagues traveled around the state, and eventually the country, encouraging different agencies to work together, and educating mental health workers and teachers about how and why to report abuse. Whenever a young client testified, White threw a party, with cake and balloons and streamers.
He told the children that regardless of how the case was decided, they had spoken their truth, and that was the victory. He knew from experience what it was like to challenge the diocese. And as hard as it would still have been, in that era, to convince jurors that a priest could be a sexual predator, making that argument about a nun was going to be much harder.
White arranged a press conference for Barquin to tell his story, in hopes it might bring other St. In his years since leaving the orphanage, Barquin had led an adventurous life. He had worked as a diver, unearthing old shipwrecks and ancient fossils. But the day of his press conference, Barquin felt like he was lighting a match inside a dark and ominous cave. He was scared, but hopeful that he might inspire others to do the same. White hoped he might hear from a few more former St. He heard from Soon a support group called the Survivors of St.
Participants said it grew to 80 members. The meetings were unpredictable. Some former residents said that the orphanage was the best thing that ever happened to them. Others recounted constant cruelty and physical abuse. Some threatened violence against clergy members. One woman said she was writing a book. Another, who had been at the orphanage in the s, called to tell her story, weeping in fear that God would punish her for saying it aloud.
One man turned up outrageously drunk. Another spoke about how, at home, he would regularly lock himself in a box. Someone wrote to White to warn him that the diocese had sent a spy. Around that time, one former resident killed himself. Survivors fought among themselves about what strategy to pursue. At one meeting, a woman was shouted down when she suggested that they all contact the bishop together. Some wanted therapists present at the meetings, but others were appalled by the suggestion.
Eventually White decided to convene a big gathering at the Hampton Inn in Colchester, Vermont, on the weekend of Sept. Sally Dale received an invitation. But she was curious to see some of the old faces and find out who was still around. It was Roger Barber, one of the boys from St. Sally remembered some of those things. She sometimes remembered bad things too, such as times when the nuns hit her.
But it was a long time ago. She recognized few of the 50 or 60 people in attendance. Some of the women recognized each other not by name but by number: Thirty-two! White began the day by introducing Barquin and some other people who were there to help. A man spoke about the Bible and turning to God in times like these, and two therapists said they were available for anyone who wanted to talk.
Local journalists were on hand too. Then Barquin told everyone about the nun taking him into the closet. Roger Barber spoke next. Sally remembered him saying that a nun told a group of older boys to rape him. A lanky, weathered man stood up and addressed another man before the whole crowd. I felt bad about that all of my life. Then one woman spoke about how nuns wiped her face in her own vomit, and Sally started to remember that the same thing had happened to her.
She could hear the voice of one sister telling her, after she threw up her food, You will not be this stubborn! You will sit and you will eat it. As Sally listened to the awful stories, something ruptured inside her. Though the reunion was a two-day event, Sally left that first afternoon with a crushing headache.
The next morning she had diarrhea and was unable to speak without heaving. S outh of Lone Rock Point, where North Avenue runs high above the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, beyond the winding paths that meander through the cemetery, behind the heavy doors of the large redbrick building, Sally was back in the orphanage. Probably not yet 6 years old, she was being marched toward the sewing room, compelled by a furious nun.
Sally had been caught running and giggling in the dormitory. Sister Jane of the Rosary took Sally to the little bedroom off the sewing room and made her lie facedown, dress yanked up, panties pulled down. Then the nun sent in Eva, a seamstress, who along with another lay employee, Irene, was one of the only two people that Sally felt safe with. Eva came into the little room, looked at Sally — face down, dress up, defenseless — and stood frozen for a few long moments.
The strap lay beside her on the bed. Then she left. Even Sister Jane of the Rosary, usually so quick to punish, came in but did nothing. Entering the room, she brought the strap down hard on Sally, from the back of her neck all the way down to her ankles. Once, twice. Ten times.
Too many times to count. Sally recoiled with each downstroke, but she tried her best to hold back the tears. The silence only enraged Sister James Mary, who kept hitting her. On and on, the blows kept coming. If you smile, the whole world smiles with you. Irene brought Sally across the long hallway, down the marble stairs, past the foyer, and into the office of the mother superior herself. The next time Sally was sent to Irene and Eva for a beating, Irene said she would deal with the child herself. Irene hit her, but only on her bottom.
Sally was so overwhelmed with gratitude that the next day, she told Irene that she loved her. As the Burlington survivors group gained momentum, Joseph Barquin emerged as an extraordinary force for change. A judge had allowed his sexual assault case to go forward, and he was proving himself to be a tenacious litigant, rallying others to the cause and even doing his own investigative work. Having been the first to come forward, he believed that his ideas should carry extra weight.
His relationship with White deteriorated over what Barquin perceived to be a lack of respect. Relations with the group frayed as well. Eventually a delegate said several members felt threatened by Barquin. White came to the painful conclusion that he could not continue to represent Barquin and encouraged him to find new counsel. White planned to focus on the claims of the other former residents. He had two children, one of them newborn, and it became clear that his firm was too small to provide all the resources needed to handle all the cases coming his way.
White realized that if he was going to represent the orphans with integrity and competence, he would have to sacrifice everything else. White hated to see the cases end like that, but he knew that the statute of limitations would have prevented some of the plaintiffs from ever getting their day in court. He told his clients that he could not advise them what path to choose, but if anyone wanted to settle, he would help. The Burlington Free Press reported that according to church officials, people accepted the payment, for abuse they said they suffered.
If G dropped his arms before the requisite time was up, he would be beaten and forced to repeat the punishment all over again. The bishop published a letter around the same time. In a larger sense they were all victims, he said: children who had been abused, as well as the good priests and brothers and nuns. She said he told her that if modern-day laws had been in place when he was a child, his own father would have been charged with child abuse, and yet he had got over what had happened to him. Well, these nuns were just frustrated ladies , she said he replied. He gave himself a few weeks to try to get to the bottom of what had happened.
The two men toured Vermont in early and Widman met with the survivors of St. The more people he spoke to, the starker the patterns that emerged. People who had been at St. They remembered a ruler, a paddle, a strap, a small ax, a light bulb, clappers, and a set of large rosary beads. They spoke about lit matches being held against skin. They described a cavernous attic. When they were good, they had gone up there two-by-two to retrieve Sunday clothes, play clothes, and winter gear. When they were bad, they were pushed, dragged, and blasted up the stairs to sit alone and scream into the void.
The aftershocks of the orphanage reverberated through their entire lives. Many of the people Widman met had spent time in jail or struggled with addiction, facts that a defense lawyer could use to discredit them in front of a jury. Not until the day he made the four-hour drive to Middletown, Connecticut, to meet Sally Dale. Sally took him in through a mudroom with lots of tiny boots flung about, to a kitchen filled with the inviting smell of cooking.
They sat down at the table and ended up speaking for hours. Then, and in subsequent conversations, she told him about the little boy who was thrown out of a fourth-story window by a nun. She told him about a day when the nuns sent her into the fire pit to retrieve a ball and her snow pants caught on fire, and about how weeks later, as the nuns pulled blackened skin off her arms and her legs with tweezers and she cried out in pain, they told her it was happening because she was a real bad girl.
She told Widman about a boy who went under the surface of Lake Champlain and did not come up again, and a very sad and very frightening story of a little boy who was electrocuted, whom the nuns made her kiss in his coffin. When Widman walked out of her house that day, he stood in her driveway with tears in his eyes. Widman asked Sally to write down what she remembered. She liked the idea, and over many months, she sent him a series of powerful and detailed letters. I had a dream last night about the orphanage.
But the funny part is my eyes were wide open. I saw a sister come into the girls small dorm and she came over to my bed and told me to come with her. She took me by the hand and brought me to her room. She put me on her bed and started to touch me all over, I was so afraid but would not make a sound so she would get mad and [unclear] me.
Then she took my hands and told me to rub her all over while she put her fingers were it really hurt and I did not like it. Then she told me to put her fingers were she had touch me on her and I said no.
She got so mad that she gave me a strapping real hard and sent me back to my bed in the dorm and told me to never say anything about it, so I did what she sayed because I really was afraid she would hurt me again. I remember when I was real little and would get mad I would throw a temper tantrum. They would get so mad at me they would grab me wherever they could and bring me into the bathroom and put me on my back over the tub and pour cold water into my face until I would stop scream and kicking.
The water would come down so hard on me. As I really got older they used to make me babysit the real little ones in the nursery. There were times when I would see things the nuns were doing to them but did not know where to go to tell someone. Sometimes I would ask them why they did those things and they would say because they were very bad boys or girls. In the winter we would have these funny looking things that heat and steam would come out off. They would put the little kids on them sometimes just to sit but others they would stand them on it and then push them and of course sometimes there little legs would get caught between the wall and radiator and the little kids would really scream and cry.
They would pull them out and some kids would have real nasty burns and blisters from it. If they did not stop crying they would then lock them in the same closet they used to put me in. You could here them but you could do nothing for them because they would keep the keys on them till they were ready to let them out. But what could I do I was still just a kid myself. Boy sometimes I would pray that either we would get killed or they would but it never happened. I really believed that nobody even God did not love any of us and that we would have to stay there forever. Church lawyers would ask the most painful questions possible.
If plaintiffs had ever visited a psychologist or psychiatrist, the lawyers could demand to see their files. If they were divorced, the church would want to talk to their exes and their children. And after all that, there was no guarantee that they would win. He threw himself into the discovery process.
He learned fast, but the more he heard, the more questions he had. How had St. Who had lived there? Where had they come from? How did money flow through the place? And one of the hardest things to understand: How could atrocities and happiness exist in the same place? Even residents who spoke about extreme abuse also laughed about sliding down bannisters, appreciated learning how to sew, or expressed pride about starring in an orphanage play.
Noble lived at St. When a cut under her fingernail developed into a throbbing, toxic infection, she had been too afraid to tell the nuns until it was almost too late. But she still cherished the memory of when the von Trapps, the Austrian family whose flight from the Nazis inspired The Sound of Music, came to visit St. For the singing of the benediction, Noble was placed next to Maria herself.
The kindest and most beloved stepmother in the world leaned down and told Noble that she sang beautifully. Even basic information about how orphanages operated was hard to find. Widman located no books or studies on the subject. What little press coverage the institutions had received over the course of the century was usually about jolly excursions or the happy recovery of a runaway scamp. The more Widman spoke to people who had lived at St. Thousands of people all over the United States had at some time worked in an orphanage, yet none had come forward to reminisce about their time, at least not anywhere that Widman could find.
The diocesan hierarchy had oversight of the orphanage, and the nuns had lived and worked there, but none of them were forthcoming with their recollections. It was the same with the children. Siblings who had once been in the same orphanage together had often not discussed it with each other, much less with friends or even spouses. In the earliest days of the orphanage, it had housed the aged as well as the young. Eventually, the elderly residents left. The children remained. Hundreds of them. As Widman came to see, however, many of them were not actually orphans.
Most were extremely poor. One girl had milk for the first time at St. One girl had seen an egg at the dining table only a few times a year. But lack of money was usually just one of their problems.
Some parents delivered their own children to the nuns, believing they were leaving them in a safe place. Many were brought by the state, after their homes were deemed unacceptable. Sometimes they ended up in an orphanage simply because their mother was unmarried. They arrived in every imaginable condition, dirty and lice-ridden, covered in bruises, recently raped, or perfectly healthy.
Once the doors of St. They even took on different identities, as the nuns addressed them by number , not by name. The women of the Sisters of Providence had been renamed, too, when they joined the order and took their vows. Leonille Racicot became Sister James Mary. Jeanne Campbell became Sister Jane of the Rosary. And various men moved in and out of the drama: priests, seminarians, counselors, and others, recurring characters who kept their given names and who would appear for a time, then step back offstage and into the rest of the world.
In , members of the survivors group asked for permission to return to the old brick building, which had stopped admitting children back in the s and now housed only a few church offices. Initially they were turned away at the door. Months later some were allowed to walk through, but usually just one at a time. The diocese reached out to one former resident, whom they believed would testify for them, and flew her in from Utah for a tour.
So one day he just walked in the front door, said he was visiting from out of town, and politely asked if he could look around. The person at reception told him to go ahead. The grand, marble, circular staircase, up which children had trudged, and down which some had fallen or been thrown, was removed in the s to accommodate an elevator, an innovation that was exciting enough to warrant a newspaper article, bearing a photograph with a spectacled, smiling nun and grinning, well-dressed children.
The replacement staircase, now old and chipped, was narrow and utilitarian. Widman followed it straight up to the top floor. Several orphans had told him it was a terrifying place inhabited by scurrying mice and the occasional bat, along with sheet-draped statues that seemed to come to life when the wind blew through. Sally had told him about an electric chair — or something that looked just like one — that a nun used to strap her into for hours, taunting her that the chair would fry her.
Even for an adult, the shadowy chamber was immense and disorienting. Widman gazed at the rafters and the loft and the door that concealed the spiral staircase to the cupola. Names had been scratched in the wood of the doorframe. Widman found a huge metal water tank with pipes coming out of it. It had a big lid, and as he stood there and looked at it, he remembered that Sally Dale had told him that nuns made her climb up the little ladder and drop herself in. Then they pulled the lid back over and left. Widman always went with the best case first. The first 12 new cases, including all the out-of-state plaintiffs, went to federal court.
The other 13 went to state court. Other St. One attorney told me that local lawyers referred to him as Darth Vader. Traveling back and forth from Florida for a week or two at a time, Widman drove through Vermont in search of St. One person would lead him to five more, and those five would lead to another And the more stories that Widman gathered, the more they began to knit themselves together, as happened in the case of the girl who stole a piece of candy.
A number of women separately told Widman they remembered a day when they were gathered together to witness a punishment. One thought it happened near the girls dining room. Another thought it was in the room where the children took off their coats and hats. Everyone agreed it happened downstairs. Three women recalled that a girl was placed facedown over a desk and beaten. Two remembered that the nun used a paddle.
Eventually the handle of the paddle snapped, so she got another paddle and used that one until she was finished.
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All the women remembered that the nun pulled out some matches. One woman thought the nun had a whole box of them. Another remembered only a single stick. One recalled that the girl had struggled and cried; another remembered that all the girls cried; one believed that she herself had spoken out, but that no one else said a word. Still, they all remembered what happened next. If the children mentioned the incident, one witness remembered a nun saying, they would never see their parents again. He was desperate to find her, but none of his searches yielded anything.
Until one day he got a call. About the burning? That was me. Then she told Widman her story. It was just as everyone had said. The witnesses remembered that the girl had stolen some candy, and they all remembered that a nun caught her. Often, traumatic memory worked just like normal memory, meaning that an episode might blur over time. For some people, the more intense an experience had been, the likelier they were to retain it as a vivid narrative.
But there was a threshold, at least for some. If an experience was too disturbing, it sometimes vanished. Whether the experience was actively repressed or just forgotten, it seemed to disappear from consciousness for decades, returning only in response to a specific trigger, such as driving by an orphanage or seeing a nun at the supermarket. After each interview, Widman took notes on who he met, what had happened to them, and who they named.
Inside his bursting binder was not just a list of events or a big picture; it was a whole world that had spun quietly for decades on the edge of a small and oblivious community. Every story that Widman gathered was a kind of proof of concept for every other. It might be hard for someone to believe that a child at St. Emerging from a lifetime of silence and fear, Barquin was compelling in front of a microphone. And he had been a powerful leader, at least until relations deteriorated.
He had inspired many reluctant former residents to join him in speaking out. The mediation was not an easy process, and there were a few false starts. In the end, Barquin said, the church settled for a significant amount of money — and a provision that the agreement and the amount be kept secret. I was unable to obtain any of the documentation for the settlement. In his final meeting with the chancellor of the diocese, Barquin recalled, he and the chancellor asked their attorneys to leave the room, and with only a mediator present, they hashed out the details of the settlement.
Both men wept. In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, Barquin said that he wanted to find a non-adversarial way for his fellow orphans to resolve their claims. Barquin began to phone Sally Dale to suggest that he could have the bishop and some nuns drop by her house to talk about things.
Dale, who was horrified by the suggestion, said no. It was a summer day, and the girls had gone down a huge green hill and through a field of lilac bushes, scattered wildflowers, and floating cottonwood that went right up to the edge of a thick oak forest. They plunged in, following a steep, winding path, crossing over a railway track, and continuing down through the trees until the forest stopped so abruptly that when they came out the other side of it, it was like they had walked through a solid green wall.
There in front of them was North Beach, where the water was clear and lovely and shallow, with tiny little fish darting around as the girls chased each other. As she waded in the shallows, Sally saw two nuns and a boy in a rowboat head out to where the water was deep. Sally had been taken out in that boat too, as had many other children, and she knew what came next: The nuns threw you in the water.
They said it taught you how to swim. When it was her turn, Sally had discovered she was in fact a strong swimmer, making her way back to the beach on her own with some pride. But the boy in the boat was screaming. Sally watched as the nuns threw him in, then she waited and wondered what had happened to him. When the children trudged back up the hill, Sally asked a nun if the boy had drowned. There were other mysterious disappearances, such as the little girl whom a nun had pushed down the stairs.
Irene, one of the lay employees, told Sally to keep the girl awake and get her to talk, but the little girl just moaned. She had a huge bump coming up on her forehead and big, dark bruises around her eyes. Sally helped Irene take her to the hospital. Someone took the girl from them. Oh, another mishap?
Another accident-prone? The nuns who worked there hated the sound of crying. She just made tearless little sobbing sounds, and the nuns hated that most of all. They did everything they could to make her weep properly. They slapped and punched her and kicked her feet out from under her. That was the last time Sally saw Mary, although a short while later, one of the older girls announced that Mary had it made. She was with her parents, the other girl said.
Mary, too, had gone home for good. There was another child, a boy, who she heard had run away from the orphanage with his cousin. He was wearing a metal helmet, and somewhere along the way he crawled under a fence and was electrocuted. To teach Sally a lesson, the nun brought her, along with other naughty children, to his funeral. The little boy lay in a small open coffin.
A nun made Sally go up to the coffin. Then she told her to kiss the boy. Sally was trapped. As she bent down toward the boy, the nun whispered that if Sally ran away, the same thing would happen to her. During the day, she went about her business, and at night, lying there in the darkened dormitory, she tried to go right to sleep.
The nuns made the girls lie on their side and face the same direction. They had to put their hands together, as in prayer, and rest their head on them, then stay like that all through the night. When Sally moved, a nun yanked her up by her hair and whipped her, before sending her back to bed — once more, hands in prayer on the pillow. I met Robert Widman at his house in Sarasota, Florida, on a balmy day in spring He had slightly wild gray hair and a deep tan, and his face crinkled up when he smiled, which he did a lot.
He had retired from legal practice, and that morning, like every other, he had gone for a three-hour bicycle ride. Now he was dressed casually, in jeans and sandals. He was 70, but he stood and moved like someone who was much younger. We sat down in a bright, airy room that opened out to a garden. Widman explained finer points of law, pausing to illustrate them with stories from his long career. Sometimes his wife, Cynthia, joined us. Enraged, the nun who was in charge that day told her to clean it up. You get down there and you lap it up.
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Widman knew that kind of unfairness. Growing up in Norwalk, Ohio, in a Catholic family with its fair share of nuns and priests, he had been sent against his will to a Jesuit boarding school in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Give us a boy, the Jesuits told the parents of prospective students, and get back a man. Every night before bed, he said, boys who had earned a demerit were made to pull down their pants, bend over, and grab their ankles, so they could be beaten with a footwide paddle. Decades later, he still remembered so many of the details from the St.
I showed him the video of Sally Dale talking about the boy she saw pushed out a window. He sounded proud of her. On the video, Sally recalls looking up to the fourth floor. Widman let out a big sigh. Of all of the plaintiffs, Sally occupied a special place in his memory. I just loved her. She was really a special person. But whenever Sally or another orphan told Widman about witnessing a death, his silent reaction was that there were no bodies, no witnesses, and no proof of any kind.
Even countries that have conducted official government inquiries into the terrible stories of the orphanage system have shied away from stories about children who died there. The narrowed focus distinguished between tortures in a way that made little sense to the people who had experienced them, and it made the stories about deaths seem more like hallucinatory one-offs than inevitable outcomes in a world of dehumanizing brutality. Canada is perhaps the only country to have convened a special investigation into the thousands of Indigenous children who had gone to residential schools and never returned home.
Kimberly Murray, an assistant deputy attorney general in Ontario who led the Missing Children Project, told me about former residents who recalled witnessing other children beaten to death or pushed from a window. The stories I read of dead children at St. In addition to the boy thrown from a window and the other one pushed into the lake, there was a story about another boy tied to a tree and left to freeze, and a newborn smothered in a crib. The stories haunted me, but despite the many resonances with tales from different orphanages, I found some of them just too much to believe.
She said there were holes in his face? And that he had been wearing a metal helmet? The details were too awful, too bizarre. Surely there was at least an element of delusion at work. And if it could creep into that story, what other recollections might it have colored? How could anyone ever nail down the facts? At the start of the litigation, the stories of dead children were already between 30 and 60 years old.
As with any cold case, the more time that passes between a crime and its investigation, the more likely it is that evidence will get corrupted or lost, that details will blur, that witnesses will die. These cases presented additional challenges. They depended on accounts that took years to emerge into public view. That lag is common among victims of trauma, from children who were abused by family members to soldiers who suffered a devastating event on the battlefield. But at the time, psychology and neuroscience were only beginning to understand that delay; even now there remains tremendous cultural anxiety about the reliability of memories from the distant past, especially from childhood.
Finally, understanding these deaths required stepping fully into an eerie otherworld that few people today even know existed. Even when they were ubiquitous, orphanages were walled off from the rest of society. No one on the outside really knew what went on in them. Few really cared to. And she kept hitting me until finally I said okay, I did it, to stop the hitting.
Then I watched it get white. It had been obvious to Widman from the beginning, and only more so as the stories of his witnesses started to knit together, that he needed to bring all the plaintiffs together in front of the same jury in a consolidated trial. In isolation, any one account could be more easily picked apart and cast into doubt. The plaintiffs would be vulnerable outcasts going up against one of the most powerful institutions in the world.
Together they had a chance. Joining the cases was critical on a practical level, too. The plaintiffs would need to call on each other as witnesses, but if each case was tried separately, they would have to return to the court and tell each story perhaps a dozen times, in front of strangers, an experience that many of his clients would find unbearable. The expert witnesses would have to be summoned again and again, and the court would need to assemble different juries for each case.
The cost would be extraordinary. The defense fought hard against letting all the plaintiffs join their cases together for a consolidated trial. It argued that it could prejudice a jury to hear stories from such a long timespan. The letters would have been invaluable, practically a database of abuse and abusers.
Widman was also unable to get the letters directly from White, for reasons neither lawyer can now recall. The defense argued that when the bishop had asked former orphans to share their stories with him, he had done so out of a sense of compassion, and that he had given them the settlement money out of concern for their well-being. If by paying the money, the diocese had also bought itself protection from further legal action, well, that was just incidental. Long enough that no allegation, no matter how concrete, could ever be verified. There was simply no way to know any of it. The facts were lost in the mists of time.
It was a smart strategy. For the plaintiffs, it was also a cruel one. From their perspective, their long silence was not an accident; it had been forced on them, a direct result of the abuse they had suffered. How many times had the children learned the lesson that no one was interested in their pain? If you cry, you cry alone. How many times had they been punished for speaking up, leaving them to conclude that no one in power was interested in their problems? That their pain had no meaning inside or outside the orphanage walls? Again and again, they learned that their firsthand observations were not valid.
The nun told Sally she had a vivid imagination. It took years — decades — for these survivors of St. Still, the list of victims was growing, and so was the list of abusers. Multiple laymen were also accused of molestation and other abuse. Fred Adams, who worked at the orphanage in the s and sometimes wore a Boy Scout uniform, still haunted some of the boys of St. Adams told one boy he would one day go to battle for America and needed to be able to tolerate torture if captured.
Adams trussed the boy up and hung him from the ceiling. Then he tied a string to his penis. As he pulled on the string, the boy swung back and forth and smacked repeatedly into a hot bulb that was hanging behind him. Adams said, You can't say anything to jeopardize your fellow man… This is definitely going to happen to you. Vivid though these images were, Widman was nervous about how they would fare in the litigation. In sex abuse cases across the United States, defense lawyers had started to challenge recovered memories. Then in Bennington, Vermont, he deposed two siblings, a brother and sister, former residents of St.
The sister, a slight woman in her forties, spoke positively about her time in the orphanage. At some point, Widman told me, he mentioned the name of the nun who had sewn with the girls, and who was said to have sexually assaulted more than one of them. For one beat, no one moved. Then, Widman recalled, pandemonium broke out. The defense attorneys started yelling and screaming.
What had Widman done? Had he given her money? Widman himself was frantic. What are you talking about? The woman said that she remembered what the nun had done to everyone, and that she had done it to her too. She continued to serve as a witness — but for the plaintiffs. It was happening in Canada too. In Montreal, less than miles north of Burlington, former residents of Catholic orphanages were now coming forward to say that as long ago as the s and as recently as , they had been subjected to the most extraordinary abuse. Just as with St. Widman went to Montreal to learn more. Duplessis observed that orphanages received only half the amount for each resident that hospitals and mental institutions received.
And they were pulled out of the orphanages where they had lived and moved into mental institutions. Often it was the defiant ones who were shipped off first. Some orphanages were simply rebranded as asylums, and untrained nuns were elevated to the status of psychiatric nurses — armed not just with their wooden paddles but with all the tools for treating mental illness in the s, including restraints and intravenous sedatives. Many killed themselves or struggled with addiction and other damage.
But many of those who survived were ready for a fight. Their struggles had been chronicled in a book, Les Enfants de Duplessis , by the sociologist Pauline Gill. They had filed more than criminal complaints against individual members of religious orders. I asked one of the enfants , a woman named Alice Quinton, if she had seen any children die. She told me that one of her friends, an especially strong-willed girl named Evelyne Richard, died after being injected with the drug we now call Thorazine. Quinton especially remembered a little girl called Michelle, who was only about 4 years old, was said to have a brain tumor, and was often bruised and marked from beatings.
Michelle cried all the time and was beaten all the time. A year after she arrived, one of the nuns discovered her body, stiff in the little straitjacket that she had been tied into. Decades later, when Alice told her story to the police, they informed her that one of her tormentors had died at some point along the way.
Hearing how the St. He also heard that a similar story was unfolding in Ireland. Adults who had grown up in residential schools run by Christian Brothers and different orders of nuns were starting to discuss how they had been assaulted, raped, and brutalized, and the police were investigating some of the cases. The Irish government was not doing much — the statute of limitations ruled out the pursuit of criminal charges — but it seemed clear that a storm was building. Around the time that Alice Quinton told me about the children who had died in the institution where she grew up, I was trying to track down all the stories about deaths from the St.
Scattered through the witness depositions, the stories were hard to piece together: How many deaths were claimed? Who saw them? When in the odd-year period covered by the litigation had they occurred? When I first came across the horrifying tales about a boy who drowned and a child who froze, I turned the page I frantically tried to cross-reference the accounts in other depositions and track down the witness, but usually I found only a whisper of the original story. The orphanage was in operation for over years.
Thousands of people passed through its doors. It stood to reason that there would have been some fatalities along the way, even if only from natural causes. But the defense never offered an accounting of who had died and how, except in a few narrow instances when forced to. A former resident named Sherry Huestis told a story that she had confided to her sister decades before: In the middle of the night, the seamstress, Eva, would sometimes pull Sherry out of bed to keep her company as she walked the hallways checking the doors. One night, Huestis testified, awful screams broke the silence, and Huestis followed Eva to a room where two nuns were hovering over another nun in the bed.
The one in bed had her legs up and wide open. A little black baby was coming out. The next day, Huestis went to her work in the nursery, and sure enough, the little baby was there, sweet and tiny. Later, the nursery nun walked up to Huestis and slapped her good and hard across the face. I read the depositions of a number of former residents who, separately, described being made to kiss an old, dead man in his coffin at the orphanage. It was uncanny how many remembered the event.
That was more or less where the conversation ended. He just asked the plaintiff what she would say if he said that.
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In another deposition, a man called Joseph Eskra, who spent time at St. Another resident who was there at the same time described a large group of children standing on the shore of Lake Champlain and joining hands to form a human chain. Slowly the children walked into the water to search for a missing boy. The children had to walk in a long way before the water reached their waists. Before they got to the sharp drop-off, the word came down the line that the boy had been found. Eskra had last seen Willette out in the lake, where some bullies were trying to keep him from grabbing onto a floating log.
Now someone carried him to the beach and laid him out on the sand in his striped bathing shorts, legs splayed. Soon firefighters were crouched around him trying to push air in as the sheriff, who had arrived in his patrol boat, stood nearby. But it was too late. Eskra talked about another boy who failed to turn up at dinner one night. A group of about 20 set out with flashlights to look for him.
They found him near the swing set, tied to a tree, frozen to death. Eskra took Borsykowsky at face value and tried to be helpful. It was happening in Albany too, with survivors of an orphanage called St. The two cases played out in isolation, but I was amazed by the similarities: Though they were run by nuns from different orders, the orphanages were only miles apart. The claims of former orphans — and the counter-claims of church supporters — were tearing each community apart. The stories made the front page of each local paper, but not a single person I interviewed from either case seemed to know about the other.
The Albany case had one crucial difference: Orphanage survivors had managed to get a police investigation. The Albany fight began with Bill Bonneau, who had seen his three younger brothers hauled off to St. Only two made it out. The youngest, Gilbert, died when he was 8. Doctors said it was meningitis. But in , more than two decades later, Bill got a phone call from a stranger who said her name was Marian Maynard. Bill told me that Maynard had an urgent message about Gilbert: Before Gilbert died, he was beaten by a nun.
Maynard said the nun had savagely hit Gilbert in the head and he died the next day. For decades Maynard had kept the story to herself — but she happened to catch sight of the nun in Troy that day, then raced home and worked her way through all the Bonneaus in the phone book. She ended the conversation promising to call him back. But days and then weeks and then years came and went, and the call never came. The ad ran for many years.
It was when a local reporter named Dan Lynch noticed the ad and wondered if it came with a story. Was he a victim of a brutal institutional environment? Has the truth surrounding his death been covered up? Dozens of former St. One spoke of being thrown down concrete stairs, one was forced to kneel for hours in punishment, one was hung upside down in the laundry chute, and one was forced to eat his own vomit.
One heard it snap. He died in In the s, a witness would tell police that she had seen a nun brutally beat the boy days before he died. All three pathologists agreed there was no evidence that the boy died of meningitis. The man said he knew nothing about the investigation. But despite all the evidence that the Bonneaus had managed to gather, the DA never brought any charges, and no lawyer ever agreed to take the case and file a civil suit.
The request was denied. Sally had told Widman about a day at the orphanage when she and a girl named Patty Zeno had been told to wash the windows. Patty was on the sill when the explosive Sister Priscille, even angrier than usual, came storming into the room, punched Sally on the arm, and told her to leave.
But Sally was still there to see what happened next: The nun reached through the window frame and shoved Patty hard. Patty spun away from the window, somehow leaving her left foot on the sill. Lurching past the nun, Sally grabbed that ankle and an arm as Patty crashed hard up against the brick wall on her left. Somehow Sally managed to get Patty back inside, and then for a while they hung on to each other crying.
After Sally first told Widman this story, a woman contacted him and said a nun called Sister Priscille had tried to push her from a window. It was Patty herself. Sister Priscille had it out for her, she said, because she had once reported her to Vermont Catholic Charities, which had an office next door. Patty remembered the nun warning her, You will pay for it — the same words she had mouthed as she shoved Patty off the windowsill.
When they met again as adults, Sally asked Patty if she remembered the way they all used to sleep on their sides facing the same direction with their hands tucked under their head as if in prayer. The swimming lessons were another case in point. Like Sally Dale, many children had claimed it was common at St. But when it came to the nuns, they had a different story. One said she never went swimming at all, one said she went down to the lake but only to supervise the boys, one said she swam with the girls, and one said that she and many other nuns swam at the lake but only when the children were not there.
One said the nuns did not have a rowboat.