Church investigation faces challenges

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BURLINGTON — State and local authorities say the passage of more than a half-century won't stop them from investigating new allegations of past child abuse by Vermont Catholic Church personnel.

"We know there are countless victims of abuse, physical and sexual abuse, that are still living in our state," Attorney General T.J. Donovan said Monday in announcing a joint law enforcement effort aimed at shedding new light on some old yet only recently reported criminal claims.

"While there may be challenges given the current state of our laws," Donovan said, "we want to hear from the victims, we want to give voice to the victims, we want to stand up for the victims."

The attorney general's office is teaming with Burlington and Vermont State Police and the Chittenden County state's attorney after reading claims in a recent BuzzFeed News story headlined "We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage."

The August article not only recounts previously documented "unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children" at Burlington's St. Joseph's Orphanage, open from 1854 to 1974, but also reveals several deadly new allegations not reported in a series of well-publicized lawsuits in the 1990s.

"There's no doubt that this investigation comes far too late to help all of the victims," Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Monday. "There may still be an opportunity to secure justice for some."

The BuzzFeed News story has made national news for claims by a now-deceased orphanage resident who said she saw a boy fall under the surface of Lake Champlain and not come up, a second who was accidentally electrocuted and a third who, according to her memory, a nun threw out of a fourth-floor window to his death.

"He kind of hit, and — " Sally Dale was quoted by BuzzFeed News writer Christine Kenneally. "And then he laid still."

Vermont statutes of limitations allow people to file court cases only up to six years after they realize their abuse has caused personal harm. But criminal charges of murder face no timing restrictions.

"If it is possible to make murder charges at this point we will," Weinberger said, "whether the perpetrators are living or dead."

The BuzzFeed News story points out some of the challenges present-day investigators face. Dale figured the window incident took place three quarters of a century ago because she remembered moving to the "big girls" dormitory that day, which would have made her age 6 and the year 1944. She also recalled only two people there, herself and an unidentified nun who reportedly told Dale she had a vivid imagination.

"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," Kenneally writes in the story she researched for four years. "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."

Vermont authorities have faced a torrent of questions about the BuzzFeed News article ever since national outlets ranging from National Public Radio to USA Today began repeating the claims. Those present at Monday's announcement wouldn't say whether pressure from the recent publicity sparked the new investigation.

"I am so deeply saddened to hear that these crimes and abuse took place in Burlington," Weinberger did respond. "These children were some of the most vulnerable residents of our community, and our community failed to protect them."

Authorities are asking all survivors, family and friends to contact them with reports of any past abuse.

"We pledge to do a thorough investigation and public accounting of what occurred," Weinberger said. "We believe it's important to fully understand what happened and why to insure that it never happens again."

Donovan, for his part, acknowledged that many of the people involved may be unidentified or dead, and couldn't even guess at a timetable for reporting results.

"There are some challenges with this investigation," the attorney general said. "But there should be no challenge to bringing truth and reconciliation and closure and justice for victims."

"Justice doesn't always occur in a courtroom," Donovan added. "Justice oftentimes means that the perpetrators and those that represent the perpetrators acknowledge that what is alleged is to have occurred and the victims are given an acknowledgement and an apology and an opportunity to share their story."

The Vermont Roman Catholic Diocese has pledged to support the investigation, with Bishop Christopher Coyne going so far as to hold an unprecedented Sabbath press conference at Burlington's St. Joseph Cathedral after Mass Sunday.

"The police and the law-enforcement agencies involved in the task force are doing their job in pursuing these matters," Coyne told parishioners who went on to applaud his words. "I offer to these authorities our cooperation and I pledge that the Diocese of Burlington will be forthcoming with anything that can be helpful in resolving the allegations."

The attorney general has accepted the church's offer of "cooperation and collaboration." But the bishop acknowledged Vermont's largest religious denomination doesn't have much pertinent paperwork to share. The diocese has a roster of the children who lived at the orphanage but no records for any adults who worked there, as the facility was managed by the Montreal-based Sisters of Providence.

As for other files, the diocese gave former Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell its clergy misconduct records in 2002 after the Boston Globe uncovered decades of unreported sexual abuse allegations against priests in the Massachusetts capital.

The Globe would win a Pulitzer Prize for its efforts. But Sorrell, who made headlines 16 years ago by calling for a Vermont investigation similar to what Donovan is launching, never charged anyone criminally because claims found credible were too old to prosecute under the state's statutes of limitations.

Accusers, however, are free to file civil lawsuits or seek financial settlements. Back in the 1990s, the Vermont diocese offered orphanage residents $5,000 each to waive their right to further legal action. As many as 160 pursued the deal and more than 100 accepted payment, according to news reports at the time.

Another 28 former residents took orphanage overseers to court in the 1990s. At least one settled for a "significant" undisclosed amount of money, the BuzzFeed News story notes. But others dropped their cases when a judge ruled they couldn't receive church letters documenting their abuse or band together in a consolidated trial.

Former Vermont altar boys who filed a second string of clergy misconduct lawsuits in the 2000s found more legal success. By the time the diocese settled the last of their 40 cases in 2013, final reimbursement totaled more than $30 million, according to lawyers involved. To help pay that sum, the diocese sold its 32-acre Burlington headquarters on Lake Champlain that included the orphanage building.

Monday's investigation announcement drew one former temporary charge of the orphanage, 73-year-old Shelburne resident Louise Piche, who recalled seeing fellow children shouted at, slapped and shut in closets when her mother was recuperating from an illness.

"It's important to find out what happened," Piche said. "My coming today is to heal and to say how can we do this better?"

Kevin O'Connor is a Reformer and VTDigger.org correspondent who can be contacted at kevinoconnorvt@gmail.com

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