Task force to investigate Vermont orphanage abuse

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Vermont's top law enforcement officials vowed Monday to seek the truth of decades-old allegations of physical, mental and sexual abuse and even murder at the long-closed St. Joseph's Orphanage in Burlington.

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

Police say they want to now hear from former residents of St. Josephs.

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

The announcement follows a recent article in Buzzfeed News that detailed allegations of abuse at the orphanage, which closed in 1974. The article included allegations of a boy being thrown from a window to his death, a girl forced to slap herself 50 times and children being locked 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 an estimated 60 former residents to settle civil lawsuits.

At the news conference, Donovan said the investigation would be hard because many of the allegations were so old, but he said it's important to find the truth, even if no one is ever prosecuted criminally.

"While there may be challenges, given the current state of our laws, we want to hear from the victims, we want to give voice to the victims, we want to stand up for the victims of sexual abuse who have suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church, not only here in our state, but across the country," Donovan said.

The orphanage, which operated for more than a century, was housed in the giant building on Burlington's North Avenue that went on to become the offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington. It was later purchased by the now-defunct Burlington College. The property is now being redeveloped 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 initial charge of the task force, which will be made up of the Burlington police, state police and the Chittenden County's State's Attorney, will be to investigate the murder allegations contained in the Buzzfeed article.

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

Piche, who attended the Monday news conference and was part of a civil settlement with the church in the 1990s over allegations at the orphanage, said she was regularly subjected to physical and mental abuse, including an ongoing threat from nuns who told the children that they would go to hell if they misbehaved.

"People were afraid to talk because they would be condemned for life, for eternity," said Piche, who now lives in Shelburne. "It's a belief that people can't understand who haven't been there."