Diocese, former orphanage residents in Vermont differ in views of recovery process

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Some former residents of a long-closed Catholic orphanage in Vermont say they are dissatisfied with the local diocese’s response to their complaints of abuse, while the Diocese of Burlington maintains it has been transparent and helpful. 

St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington was founded in the mid-1800s. It was operated by the Sisters of Providence, and overseen by Vermont Catholic Charities. It closed in 1974.

The Vermont attorney general’s office launched an investigation into allegations of abuses at Catholic institutions after an August 2018 article in BuzzFeed News described allegations of murder and sexual abuse at the orphanage.

The investigation concluded in December 2020, and “sufficient evidence to support a murder charge was not found.”

Alleged abuses at St. Joseph's Orphanage were the subject of lawsuits brought by former residents in the 1990s. Some of the cases were dismissed, and some reached settlements.

Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington announced in September 2018 that the diocese was waiving nondisclosure agreements for abuse victims, and that the diocese had not required nondisclosure agreements on the part of victims since 2002.

"It is my hope that this past action as well as the present one will allow the truth of what happened to survivors and their families to be heard," Bishop Coyne wrote. "I pledge to you, as the bishop of Burlington, that I will do everything that I can to make sure this never happens again and to work for healing and reconciliation with those who were so badly abused by clergy."

A group of former St. Joseph’s residents, the Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage, is involved in efforts to find restitution.

“We want to be known as working for change and justice for children, and to never let anybody that's in a foster home group just be thrown in there and forgotten.” Brenda Hannon, a spokesperson for VSJO, told CNA Sept. 20.

Some of their initiatives include letter writing campaigns to the pope, creating an anthology of their experiences, working to build a memorial, and working to remove statutes of limitations. 

Hannon told CNA one of VSJO’s successes was the passage in May of a law repealing the statute of limitations for civil actions based on childhood physical abuse.

One of their requests has been for the diocese to pay for their therapy bills. 

They say their requests to the diocese have been dealt with unsatisfactorily.

The Burlington diocese said in a statement last week that Bishop Coyne, Vermont Catholic Charities, and diocesan representatives “have been meeting with former residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage one-on-one as they have requested and will continue to do so.” 

“Each meeting is unique, each person’s story is unique, and the help we offer each former resident is specific to them,” they added. “If the person feels they would be helped through counseling, we will work with them as needed.”

Hannon told CNA that “most of us feel that he [Bishop Coyne] is offering this and the one-on-one stance so that he can control the meeting and the situation.”

She said the members harbor these concerns because Bishop Coyne is “refusing” to meet with the VSJO as a group, the meetings are not recorded, and there is “some type of a counselor person evaluating you as you’re talking.”

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She also said that going to the diocese to meet with Bishop Coyne is a “hard trigger” for many of the members.

Hannon said that “if this person that sits in the meetings determines that this person needs counseling, it will be with [diocesan] counselors of their choosing and not with the members current counselor that they have been seeing and paying for years.”

She added that Bishop Coyne has affirmed that he would help members of the group, but said nothing has come to fruition.

Hannon also said that Catholic Charities of Vermont will not release orphanage records to the members. She said that members are only allowed to see their records, which contain redacted information, while they are sitting in a room with a staff member of Catholic Charities. 

The diocese told CNA Sept. 21 that “Bishop Coyne has offered one-on-one meetings to former residents which includes a support person of their choice.” 

“Bishop Coyne has offered to invite the Vermont Catholic Charities’ victim assistance coordinator to the meeting with consent, if the former resident has chosen not to bring a support person,” the statement says.

“An initial screening is completed by the victim assistance coordinator to verify basic information prior to moving forward with a therapy request,” the diocese said. “Thus far, Bishop Coyne has never denied a request for additional therapy.”

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Hannon told CNA that “not one person” has chosen to move forward with the process offered by the diocese.

The diocese told CNA that “there is a process for requesting records on the Vermont Catholic Charities website” noting that “Vermont Catholic Charities adheres to all Vermont Adoption laws outlined here.”