Horror claims about torture, abuse and MURDER in Catholic orphanage

‘We saw nuns kill children’: Horror claims about torture, sexual abuse and MURDER in Catholic orphanage in Vermont surface decades on

  • Detailed new report examines abuse claims against St. Joseph’s Orphanage
  • The Catholic orphanage in Burlington, Vermont shuttered in the 1970s
  • Residents recalled chilling stories of abuse and claim several kids were killed
  • Claims surfaced in litigation during the 1990s but church denied wrongdoing
  • New four-year investigative report finds corroboration for the horror claims 

Sickening claims about torture, sexual abuse and even the murder of children in a Catholic orphanage have resurfaced decades after the alleged events. 

Public documents and witness interviews corroborate many details of the claims made by former residents of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont, according to a four-year investigation published on Monday by BuzzFeed News.

The new report comes as governments in the UK, Ireland, Australia and elsewhere grapple with decades-old reports of horror inside Catholic orphanages.

St. Joseph’s, which was run by the Montreal-based Sisters of Providence, closed down in 1974, and the allegations regard children who lived there from the 1930s through the 70s.

Key witness Sally Dale was the institution’s longest resident, growing up at St. Joseph’s from ages 2 to 23. In 1996, Dale gave a searing 19-hour deposition recounting the alleged abuse, including that she saw a nun throw a boy to his death from a window. 

An unidentified nun and boys are seen in this undated photo from St. Joseph’s orphanage. Shocking new claims about the institution have surfaced following a new report

The orphanage (above in undated photo) was built in the 1800s and ran under the supervision of the Sisters of Providence until it shut down in 1974, as orphanages passed out of favor


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Dale said that around 1944, when she was about six, she was in the courtyard of the orphanage when she heard a crash of breaking glass, and saw a young boy sailing out of a window, with a nun leaning out and her arms outstretched. 

‘And he kind of hit and – I guess you’d call it, it was a bounce,’ Dale recalled. ‘And then he laid still.’ 

She recalled that the nun she was walking with simply grabbed her ear and led her away, warning her that she’d just imagined what she’d seen.

On another occasion, Dale says she saw a nun throw a boy into the nearby lake from a rowboat – a method many other former residents recalled being used to teach them to swim.  

When the boy disappeared beneath the waves, Dale asked a nun if he had died. ‘She said, “Oh don’t worry, he’s gone home for good”,’ Dale recalled in the deposition.

Dale, who is now dead, was one of about 100 former residents of St. Joseph’s who filed suits against the Church in the 1990s, several years before the Boston Globe’s landmark investigation cracked the veil of secrecy surrounding child abuse in the institution.

A scene from life inside St. Joseph’s Orphanage is seen in this undated picture. Horrible claims about life inside the orphanage have resurfaced as similar claims emerge around the world

In the course of the litigation, another chilling allegation of child murder came from former St. Joseph’s resident Sherry Huestis.

Huestis recalled that sometimes, in the middle of the night, a kindly seamstress who worked at the orphanage, Eva, would pull her out of bed to keep her company as she made rounds checking the doors.

One night, said Huestis, they heard terrible screams, and rushed toward the source, where they found two nuns hovering over another nun lying on the bed with her legs spread, and a black baby emerging from between them.

The following day, the baby was in the nursery, where Huestis helped take care of younger children, when a nun came in, picked up a satin pillow, and put it over the baby’s face, she said. The baby flailed and then went limp.

After Huestis told the orphanage’s social worker what she had seen, the nursery nun slapped her across the face. 

Joseph Eskra, who spent time at St. Joseph’s in the 1950s and early 1960s, recalled another boy who failed to turn up at dinner one night. A search party set out with flashlights to look for him, and found him near the swing set, tied to a tree, frozen to death.

Other stories included horrible beatings, cruel punishments including being locked inside small compartments and burned with matches, and sexual abuse by nuns.

‘Survivors’ of the orphanage formed a support group in the 1990s, leading many to file lawsuits. A T-shirt made by one of the group’s members is seen above

Dale’s case, and the others, were dismissed by a judge in the late 1990s. Other litigants settled with the Church for as little as $5,000. Simply too much time had elapsed to prove any of the claims, and many were suspicious that memories recovered decades after the fact had any merit.

Although the claims were never proved in court, Buzzfeed’s investigation offers new corroborating evidence. 

Dale’s most wild claim – which her lawyer refused to press in her suit – was that she’d been forced by a nun to kiss the badly burned and disfigured corpse of a boy who had been electrocuted while wearing a metal helmet, and warned the same would happen to her if she ran away.

A boy in Burlington did die in such a manner, however. On April 18, 1955, Joseph Millette, 13 years old, was electrocuted at the Green Mountain Power transformer station while wearing a German World War II army helmet, a souvenir from the war, according to a contemporary newspaper clipping.

Though Millette was not a resident of the orphanage as Dale recalled, the details matched her story remarkably.

The abandoned chapel of St. Joseph’s Orphanage is seen above. Former residents say they were sexually abused by nuns and even witnessed children being killed

Graffiti written by former residents is seen on the grounds of the former orphanage

Other documents to emerge since the lawsuits cast a chilling light on the claims, BuzzFeed reported.

From 1935 until the orphanage closed in 1974, five of the eight priests who oversaw St. Joseph’s where at one time accused of sexual abuse, according to documents that later emerged in other litigation. 

Those five — Fathers Foster, Bresnehan, Devoy, Emile Savary, and Donald LaRouche — ruled over St. Joseph’s for 36 of St. Joseph’s final 39 years of existence.  

The Diocese of Burlington, Vermont Catholic Charities and the Sisters of Providence declined to comment on the allegations. 

Monsignor John McDermott, of the Burlington Diocese, offered BuzzFeed the following statement: ‘Please know that the Diocese of Burlington treats allegations of child abuse seriously and procedures are in place for reporting to the proper authorities. While it cannot alter the past, the Diocese is doing everything it can to ensure children are protected.’

The Church has long since sold the grounds of the orphanage. The property was recently purchased by a developer, which has converted it upscale condos and renamed the building Liberty House.

The former orphanage has been converted to upscale condos and renamed the Liberty House

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