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Ghosts of the Orphanage: A Story of Mysterious Deaths, A Conspiracy of Silence, and a Search for Justice

by Christine Kenneally

In a culture where extreme punitive measures have become the default, the line between strict yet still appropriate discipline and abject criminal abuse can be quickly crossed. Add to that a scenario where the abuser in question holds a position of respect (i.e. the Catholic Church), and public opinion appears unlikely to bend in favor of any disadvantaged victims. 

In her investigative account of the abuse scandal at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, VT, Buzzfeed reporter Christine Kenneally uncovers this exact manifestation of unchecked power via the Catholic Church’s hold on the now antiquated orphanage system. Ghosts of the Orphanage aggressively confronts the grim past of a trusted religious institution, recounting the story of children horrifically abused by the nuns in charge until it closed its doors in 1973. 

The story of St. Joseph’s is a particularly difficult one to tell in full, due to the fact that many of the children involved had no clear identities, and still more did not make it out of the nuns’ custody alive. Despite this challenge, Kenneally attempts to untangle the extremely dense web of abuse and murder allegations as best as possible, while also highlighting her own convoluted path towards the discovery of this scandal only whispered about like ghost lore in the sleepy Northeastern city. 

Ghosts of the Orphanage follows the legal battle led by St. Joseph’s survivor Sally Dale, who was a particular target of the nuns’ torment in ways that eluded even her own memory until decades later. Dale, who testified in adulthood that during her tenure at the orphanage she had witnessed many wrongful deaths and even the outright murder of several children, sits at the center of  Kenneally’s retelling yet is certainly not alone in her experiences. 

The legal battle that followed Dales’ accusations posed many uncomfortable questions to the community of Burlington as a whole: To what extent can memory be trusted, particularly when it is informed by both youth and extreme trauma? Does such memory hold any evidentiary sway when it comes to adjudication in court? And have we progressed as a community at all in terms of the consideration offered to our most vulnerable members? 

“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.”

— Christine Kenneally, author of Ghosts of the Orphanage

In a striking stylistic move, Kenneally shifts back and forth between the very much factual reporting of the legal trial and the hazy undertones of a ghost story, recalling the voices and memories of the children who passed through the orphanage during the mid 20th century. Not only does this force a degree of empathy with the childlike psyche’s of the victims, it also serves to accentuate the uniquely haunting nature of institutional evil and bureaucratic complicity. Per Kenneally’s account, the most horrific stories that keep us awake at night are the ones that are all too real. 

What makes Kenneally’s story especially sinister is the way in which she contemporizes it, drawing connections between the archaic atmosphere of catholic orphanages and the more modern institutions of foster care and CPS. Though these newer versions might lack the hyper-religious foundation that made St. Joseph’s into what it was, they still perpetuate the same practice of harming and silencing vulnerable minors.

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