In the US, the focus of outrage against the Catholic church has been on the abuses by priests and the cover ups by higher officials. In other countries, there has also been widespread reporting on the appalling abuses that took place in orphanages run by the Catholic church. Two excellent films The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and Philomena (2013) were both based on true stories and the sheer cruelty of the nuns and priests involved is astounding.
But that lack of attention paid to orphanages in the US may be changing. Christine Kenneally has a long article about what happened at St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage in Vermont. In 1996, 28 former children of the orphanage that was run by an order known as the Sisters of Providence gave depositions on what happened as part of a lawsuit. But at that time, the church was still held in high esteem and people were reluctant to believe that nuns and priests could do such things, and the words of children were disbelieved. The Catholic church threw massive resources into the case to make sure that the children would not be believed.
It is the history of unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children. Across thousands of miles, across decades, the abuse took eerily similar forms: People who grew up in orphanages said they were made to kneel or stand for hours, sometimes with their arms straight out, sometimes holding their boots or some other item. They were forced to eat their own vomit. They were dangled upside down out windows, over wells, or in laundry chutes. Children were locked in cabinets, in closets, in attics, sometimes for days, sometimes so long they were forgotten. They were told their relatives didn’t want them, or they were permanently separated from their siblings. They were sexually abused. They were mutilated.
Outside the United States, the orphanage system and the wreckage it produced has undergone substantial official scrutiny over the last two decades. In Canada, the UK, Germany, Ireland, and Australia, multiple formal government inquiries have subpoenaed records, taken witness testimony, and found, time and again, that children consigned to orphanages — in many cases, Catholic orphanages — were victims of severe abuse. A 1998 UK government inquiry, citing “exceptional depravity” at four homes run by the Christian Brothers order in Australia, heard that a boy was the object of a competition between the brothers to see who could rape him 100 times. The inquiries focused primarily on sexual abuse, not physical abuse or murder, but taken together, the reports showed almost limitless harm that was the result not just of individual cruelty but of systemic abuse.
In the United States, however, no such reckoning has taken place. Even today the stories of the orphanages are rarely told and barely heard, let alone recognized in any formal way by the government, the public, or the courts. The few times that orphanage abuse cases have been litigated in the US, the courts have remained, with a few exceptions, generally indifferent. Private settlements could be as little as a few thousand dollars. Government bodies have rarely pursued the allegations.
Many of the children were not orphans in the technical sense but had unwed mothers or were from dysfunctional homes with no proper caregivers.
The children’s parents were often ill or addicted, jailed or divorced, or bullying, monstrous, or violent. 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. No matter where they had come from, many of the children didn’t know where they were going until the moment they turned around and discovered that whoever had brought them there was gone.
There is always the problem of the unreliability of people’s memories recalled long after an event, especially those of children, that makes these cases hard to litigate even if the statute of limitations has not run out.
The women’s stories about the candy thief provided Widman a lesson in how traumatic memory can work. The witnesses remembered that the girl had stolen some candy, and they all remembered that a nun caught her. Three of them remembered the name of the girl correctly, and although there was no consensus on the nun’s identity, most of them remembered that one nun administered the punishment. Specific details diverged, but the story’s center held.
The stories I read of dead children at St. Joseph’s were just as brutal. 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. Like Sally’s wild tale about the boy who was electrocuted. 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.
But Kenneally says that she was later able to corroborate the main elements of some of the most bizarre stories, such as the one of the boy who was electrocuted while wearing a metal helmet.
The original cases were either dismissed or were privately settled by the church for small amounts. The climate is now different. It is no longer considered unthinkable that priests and nuns would abuse children.
I wonder if, like what has occurred in some other countries, there will be a national commission to investigate systematic abuse in orphanages run by the Catholic church.