Task force to investigate Vermont orphanage abuse

FILE – This Feb. 22, 2015, file photo shows buildings and property of Burlington College in Burlington, Vt. Prior to the housing of the college, the building was the home of the St. Joseph ‘ s Orphanage. Vermont Attorney-General, T. J. Donovan said Monday, Sept. 10, 2018, a task force is launched to investigate allegations of abuse in the orphanage, that closed in 1974. The Roman Catholic bishop of Burlington, said the diocese will cooperate. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring, File)

BURLINGTON, Vt. – Vermont’s top law enforcement officials vowed Monday to the truth of the decades-old allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse and even murder in the closed St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington.

Speaking at a press conference at the Burlington police headquarters about three-quarters of a mile (1.1 km) of the building on the city North Avenue, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said that the police were the formation of a task force that would investigate the allegations, no matter how old.

The police say that they now want to hear from former residents of St. Joseph.

“These children were some of the most vulnerable residents of our community, and our community has failed to protect them,” Weinberger said.

The announcement follows a recent article on Buzzfeed News that detailed allegations of abuse in the orphanage, that closed in 1974. The article included allegations of a boy is thrown out of a window to his death, a girl is forced to slap himself 50 times and children who are locked up in an attic.

Many of the stories in the Buzzfeed article were reported by the Burlington Free Press in the 1990s. At one point, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington provided $5,000 payments to approximately 60 former residents to settle civil lawsuits.

At the press conference, Donovan said that the investigation would be difficult, because many of the allegations were so old, but he said that it is important to find the truth, even if nobody is ever prosecuted.

“Though there are challenges, given the current state of our laws, we want to hear from the victims, we want to give a voice to the victims, we want to stand up for the victims of sexual abuse who have suffered under the hands of the Catholic Church, not only here in our state, but across the country,” Donovan said.

The orphanage, which is already more than a century was located in the giant building on Burlington’s North Avenue, which was on the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. It was later purchased by the now-defunct Burlington College. The building has now been converted into hundreds of units of housing, a park and access to the nearby Lake Champlain.

Vermont Catholic Bishop Christopher Coyne said Sunday that the diocese would cooperate with the investigation.

The first charge of the task force, which will be made of the Burlington police, the state police and the Chittenden County’s State’s Attorney, the investigation into the murder on the allegations made in the Buzzfeed article.

Louise Piche, 73, who lived in the St. Joseph’s in the late 1940’s with a brother and sister for a short time, while their mother was sick and their father, unable to care for them, said that they did not suffer sexual abuse, while in the orphanage, and was not aware of a murder. People have spoken in the past about abuse, but they were not believed, ” she said.

Piche, who were present at the Monday press conference and was part of a civil settlement with a church in the 1990s over allegations in the orphanage, said she was regularly subjected to physical and mental abuse, including of a permanent threat of the nuns told the children that they’re going to hell if they are problematic.

“The people were afraid to talk, because they would be sentenced for life, for eternity,” said Piche, who now lives in Shelburne. “It is a belief that people can’t understand who have never been there.”

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