Catholic orphanage ex-residents ask church to fund therapy


South Burlington, Vermont – Some residents of a long-closed Vermont orphanage want the Catholic Church to pay for therapy as they continue to recover from what they have described as abuse by nuns and priests who were supposed to take care of them.

The youngest members of the group called The Voices of St. Joseph’s Orphanage are in their fifties. The oldest grow 80.

They held a meeting Thursday at a South Burlington hotel where they looked for ways to continue their recovery from the abuse many say they suffered at the hands of staff.

“It has been a long and often painful process to get some of the healing in our lives and to feel that we are making a difference in our society,” said Brenda Hannon, 68, of Williston who lived at the orphanage from 1959 to 1968. “One of our greatest accomplishments is that we are now visible to all of you and now believe in what has been done to us.”

At a press conference, some of the former residents called on the church to do more to help them recover, including paying for their therapy. They said that in some cases the diocese was willing to pay for therapy, but only with therapists chosen by the diocese.

In a statement released Thursday, the diocese said its officials, including Bishop Christopher Coyne, had met with former residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage one-on-one and would continue to do so.

“Each encounter is unique, each person’s story is unique and the help we offer each former resident is specific to them,” the statement said. “If the person feels they would be helped with advice, we would work with them as needed.”

The group was formed following a 2018 Buzzfeed News report about the Burlington orphanage that included allegations that a boy was thrown from a window when he died, a girl forced to slap himself 50 times and children locked in an attic. There were also allegations of sexual abuse.

The article prompted the Vermont law enforcement community to investigate the allegations. Last year Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said the investigation found no evidence of murder. But he found that children were abused at the orphanage, which closed in 1974, and that the Vermont law enforcement community failed to protect the children who lived there.

Over the years since its founding, the orphanage group has held meetings where they shared stories and learned that many of them had similar experiences. They published an anthology of their experiences which was on sale at the meeting.

“Before joining this group, I never really thought about what had happened, I buried everything, the only thing I knew was that I was in pain and I was not sure why”, a said Debi Gevry-Ellsworth, now of Pomfret, Connecticut, who arrived at the orphanage at the age of 2 in 1964 and lived there until 1974.

She has a poem in the book called “Bricks and Mortar” that begins with “If the bricks were scales and flames of mortar, this monstrosity of a building would be a dragon burning children who do not carry a cross.”

The group also urged the Vermont legislature to pass legislation earlier this year to eliminate the statute of limitations in civil child physical abuse cases.

When it opened in the mid-1850s, the orphanage was run by a Canadian religious order, and then until its closure by Vermont Catholic Charities, part of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington.

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