The Silence and the Light (Children and Ghosts Book 2)
The witnesses remembered that the girl had stolen some candy, and they all remembered that a nun caught her. Often, traumatic memory worked just like normal memory, meaning that an episode might blur over time. For some people, the more intense an experience had been, the likelier they were to retain it as a vivid narrative.
But there was a threshold, at least for some. If an experience was too disturbing, it sometimes vanished. Whether the experience was actively repressed or just forgotten, it seemed to disappear from consciousness for decades, returning only in response to a specific trigger, such as driving by an orphanage or seeing a nun at the supermarket. After each interview, Widman took notes on who he met, what had happened to them, and who they named. Inside his bursting binder was not just a list of events or a big picture; it was a whole world that had spun quietly for decades on the edge of a small and oblivious community.
Every story that Widman gathered was a kind of proof of concept for every other. It might be hard for someone to believe that a child at St. Emerging from a lifetime of silence and fear, Barquin was compelling in front of a microphone. And he had been a powerful leader, at least until relations deteriorated. He had inspired many reluctant former residents to join him in speaking out. The mediation was not an easy process, and there were a few false starts. In the end, Barquin said, the church settled for a significant amount of money — and a provision that the agreement and the amount be kept secret.
I was unable to obtain any of the documentation for the settlement. In his final meeting with the chancellor of the diocese, Barquin recalled, he and the chancellor asked their attorneys to leave the room, and with only a mediator present, they hashed out the details of the settlement. Both men wept. In an interview with the Burlington Free Press, Barquin said that he wanted to find a non-adversarial way for his fellow orphans to resolve their claims.
Barquin began to phone Sally Dale to suggest that he could have the bishop and some nuns drop by her house to talk about things. Dale, who was horrified by the suggestion, said no. It was a summer day, and the girls had gone down a huge green hill and through a field of lilac bushes, scattered wildflowers, and floating cottonwood that went right up to the edge of a thick oak forest. They plunged in, following a steep, winding path, crossing over a railway track, and continuing down through the trees until the forest stopped so abruptly that when they came out the other side of it, it was like they had walked through a solid green wall.
There in front of them was North Beach, where the water was clear and lovely and shallow, with tiny little fish darting around as the girls chased each other. As she waded in the shallows, Sally saw two nuns and a boy in a rowboat head out to where the water was deep. Sally had been taken out in that boat too, as had many other children, and she knew what came next: The nuns threw you in the water. They said it taught you how to swim. When it was her turn, Sally had discovered she was in fact a strong swimmer, making her way back to the beach on her own with some pride.
But the boy in the boat was screaming. Sally watched as the nuns threw him in, then she waited and wondered what had happened to him. When the children trudged back up the hill, Sally asked a nun if the boy had drowned. There were other mysterious disappearances, such as the little girl whom a nun had pushed down the stairs. Irene, one of the lay employees, told Sally to keep the girl awake and get her to talk, but the little girl just moaned.
She had a huge bump coming up on her forehead and big, dark bruises around her eyes. Sally helped Irene take her to the hospital. Someone took the girl from them. Oh, another mishap? Another accident-prone? The nuns who worked there hated the sound of crying. She just made tearless little sobbing sounds, and the nuns hated that most of all.
They did everything they could to make her weep properly. They slapped and punched her and kicked her feet out from under her. That was the last time Sally saw Mary, although a short while later, one of the older girls announced that Mary had it made. She was with her parents, the other girl said. Mary, too, had gone home for good. There was another child, a boy, who she heard had run away from the orphanage with his cousin.
He was wearing a metal helmet, and somewhere along the way he crawled under a fence and was electrocuted. To teach Sally a lesson, the nun brought her, along with other naughty children, to his funeral. The little boy lay in a small open coffin. A nun made Sally go up to the coffin. Then she told her to kiss the boy. Sally was trapped. As she bent down toward the boy, the nun whispered that if Sally ran away, the same thing would happen to her.
During the day, she went about her business, and at night, lying there in the darkened dormitory, she tried to go right to sleep. The nuns made the girls lie on their side and face the same direction. They had to put their hands together, as in prayer, and rest their head on them, then stay like that all through the night. When Sally moved, a nun yanked her up by her hair and whipped her, before sending her back to bed — once more, hands in prayer on the pillow.
I met Robert Widman at his house in Sarasota, Florida, on a balmy day in spring He had slightly wild gray hair and a deep tan, and his face crinkled up when he smiled, which he did a lot. He had retired from legal practice, and that morning, like every other, he had gone for a three-hour bicycle ride. Now he was dressed casually, in jeans and sandals. He was 70, but he stood and moved like someone who was much younger. We sat down in a bright, airy room that opened out to a garden.
Widman explained finer points of law, pausing to illustrate them with stories from his long career. Sometimes his wife, Cynthia, joined us. Enraged, the nun who was in charge that day told her to clean it up. You get down there and you lap it up. Widman knew that kind of unfairness. Growing up in Norwalk, Ohio, in a Catholic family with its fair share of nuns and priests, he had been sent against his will to a Jesuit boarding school in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. Give us a boy, the Jesuits told the parents of prospective students, and get back a man.
Every night before bed, he said, boys who had earned a demerit were made to pull down their pants, bend over, and grab their ankles, so they could be beaten with a footwide paddle. Decades later, he still remembered so many of the details from the St. I showed him the video of Sally Dale talking about the boy she saw pushed out a window.
He sounded proud of her. On the video, Sally recalls looking up to the fourth floor. Widman let out a big sigh. Of all of the plaintiffs, Sally occupied a special place in his memory. I just loved her. She was really a special person. But whenever Sally or another orphan told Widman about witnessing a death, his silent reaction was that there were no bodies, no witnesses, and no proof of any kind. Even countries that have conducted official government inquiries into the terrible stories of the orphanage system have shied away from stories about children who died there. The narrowed focus distinguished between tortures in a way that made little sense to the people who had experienced them, and it made the stories about deaths seem more like hallucinatory one-offs than inevitable outcomes in a world of dehumanizing brutality.
Canada is perhaps the only country to have convened a special investigation into the thousands of Indigenous children who had gone to residential schools and never returned home. Kimberly Murray, an assistant deputy attorney general in Ontario who led the Missing Children Project, told me about former residents who recalled witnessing other children beaten to death or pushed from a window.
The stories I read of dead children at St. In addition to the boy thrown from a window and the other one pushed into the lake, there was a story about another boy tied to a tree and left to freeze, and a newborn smothered in a crib. The stories haunted me, but despite the many resonances with tales from different orphanages, I found some of them just too much to believe.
She said there were holes in his face? And that he had been wearing a metal helmet? The details were too awful, too bizarre. Surely there was at least an element of delusion at work. And if it could creep into that story, what other recollections might it have colored? How could anyone ever nail down the facts? At the start of the litigation, the stories of dead children were already between 30 and 60 years old. As with any cold case, the more time that passes between a crime and its investigation, the more likely it is that evidence will get corrupted or lost, that details will blur, that witnesses will die.
These cases presented additional challenges. They depended on accounts that took years to emerge into public view. That lag is common among victims of trauma, from children who were abused by family members to soldiers who suffered a devastating event on the battlefield. But at the time, psychology and neuroscience were only beginning to understand that delay; even now there remains tremendous cultural anxiety about the reliability of memories from the distant past, especially from childhood. Finally, understanding these deaths required stepping fully into an eerie otherworld that few people today even know existed.
Even when they were ubiquitous, orphanages were walled off from the rest of society. No one on the outside really knew what went on in them. Few really cared to. And she kept hitting me until finally I said okay, I did it, to stop the hitting. Then I watched it get white. It had been obvious to Widman from the beginning, and only more so as the stories of his witnesses started to knit together, that he needed to bring all the plaintiffs together in front of the same jury in a consolidated trial. In isolation, any one account could be more easily picked apart and cast into doubt.
The plaintiffs would be vulnerable outcasts going up against one of the most powerful institutions in the world. Together they had a chance. Joining the cases was critical on a practical level, too. The plaintiffs would need to call on each other as witnesses, but if each case was tried separately, they would have to return to the court and tell each story perhaps a dozen times, in front of strangers, an experience that many of his clients would find unbearable. The expert witnesses would have to be summoned again and again, and the court would need to assemble different juries for each case.
The cost would be extraordinary. The defense fought hard against letting all the plaintiffs join their cases together for a consolidated trial. It argued that it could prejudice a jury to hear stories from such a long timespan. The letters would have been invaluable, practically a database of abuse and abusers.
Widman was also unable to get the letters directly from White, for reasons neither lawyer can now recall. The defense argued that when the bishop had asked former orphans to share their stories with him, he had done so out of a sense of compassion, and that he had given them the settlement money out of concern for their well-being. If by paying the money, the diocese had also bought itself protection from further legal action, well, that was just incidental.
Long enough that no allegation, no matter how concrete, could ever be verified. There was simply no way to know any of it. The facts were lost in the mists of time. It was a smart strategy. For the plaintiffs, it was also a cruel one. From their perspective, their long silence was not an accident; it had been forced on them, a direct result of the abuse they had suffered. How many times had the children learned the lesson that no one was interested in their pain? If you cry, you cry alone. How many times had they been punished for speaking up, leaving them to conclude that no one in power was interested in their problems?
It Is Hard for Us to Believe What We Cannot See
That their pain had no meaning inside or outside the orphanage walls? Again and again, they learned that their firsthand observations were not valid. The nun told Sally she had a vivid imagination. It took years — decades — for these survivors of St. Still, the list of victims was growing, and so was the list of abusers. Multiple laymen were also accused of molestation and other abuse. Fred Adams, who worked at the orphanage in the s and sometimes wore a Boy Scout uniform, still haunted some of the boys of St.
Adams told one boy he would one day go to battle for America and needed to be able to tolerate torture if captured. Adams trussed the boy up and hung him from the ceiling. Then he tied a string to his penis. As he pulled on the string, the boy swung back and forth and smacked repeatedly into a hot bulb that was hanging behind him.
Adams said, You can't say anything to jeopardize your fellow man… This is definitely going to happen to you. Vivid though these images were, Widman was nervous about how they would fare in the litigation. In sex abuse cases across the United States, defense lawyers had started to challenge recovered memories. Then in Bennington, Vermont, he deposed two siblings, a brother and sister, former residents of St. The sister, a slight woman in her forties, spoke positively about her time in the orphanage. At some point, Widman told me, he mentioned the name of the nun who had sewn with the girls, and who was said to have sexually assaulted more than one of them.
For one beat, no one moved. Then, Widman recalled, pandemonium broke out. The defense attorneys started yelling and screaming. What had Widman done? Had he given her money? Widman himself was frantic. What are you talking about? The woman said that she remembered what the nun had done to everyone, and that she had done it to her too. She continued to serve as a witness — but for the plaintiffs. It was happening in Canada too. In Montreal, less than miles north of Burlington, former residents of Catholic orphanages were now coming forward to say that as long ago as the s and as recently as , they had been subjected to the most extraordinary abuse.
Just as with St. Widman went to Montreal to learn more. Duplessis observed that orphanages received only half the amount for each resident that hospitals and mental institutions received. And they were pulled out of the orphanages where they had lived and moved into mental institutions. Often it was the defiant ones who were shipped off first.
Some orphanages were simply rebranded as asylums, and untrained nuns were elevated to the status of psychiatric nurses — armed not just with their wooden paddles but with all the tools for treating mental illness in the s, including restraints and intravenous sedatives.
Many killed themselves or struggled with addiction and other damage. But many of those who survived were ready for a fight. Their struggles had been chronicled in a book, Les Enfants de Duplessis , by the sociologist Pauline Gill. They had filed more than criminal complaints against individual members of religious orders. I asked one of the enfants , a woman named Alice Quinton, if she had seen any children die.
She told me that one of her friends, an especially strong-willed girl named Evelyne Richard, died after being injected with the drug we now call Thorazine. Quinton especially remembered a little girl called Michelle, who was only about 4 years old, was said to have a brain tumor, and was often bruised and marked from beatings. Michelle cried all the time and was beaten all the time. A year after she arrived, one of the nuns discovered her body, stiff in the little straitjacket that she had been tied into. Decades later, when Alice told her story to the police, they informed her that one of her tormentors had died at some point along the way.
Hearing how the St. He also heard that a similar story was unfolding in Ireland. Adults who had grown up in residential schools run by Christian Brothers and different orders of nuns were starting to discuss how they had been assaulted, raped, and brutalized, and the police were investigating some of the cases. The Irish government was not doing much — the statute of limitations ruled out the pursuit of criminal charges — but it seemed clear that a storm was building. Around the time that Alice Quinton told me about the children who had died in the institution where she grew up, I was trying to track down all the stories about deaths from the St.
Scattered through the witness depositions, the stories were hard to piece together: How many deaths were claimed? Who saw them? When in the odd-year period covered by the litigation had they occurred? When I first came across the horrifying tales about a boy who drowned and a child who froze, I turned the page I frantically tried to cross-reference the accounts in other depositions and track down the witness, but usually I found only a whisper of the original story. The orphanage was in operation for over years. Thousands of people passed through its doors.
It stood to reason that there would have been some fatalities along the way, even if only from natural causes. But the defense never offered an accounting of who had died and how, except in a few narrow instances when forced to. A former resident named Sherry Huestis told a story that she had confided to her sister decades before: In the middle of the night, the seamstress, Eva, would sometimes pull Sherry out of bed to keep her company as she walked the hallways checking the doors. One night, Huestis testified, awful screams broke the silence, and Huestis followed Eva to a room where two nuns were hovering over another nun in the bed.
The one in bed had her legs up and wide open. A little black baby was coming out. The next day, Huestis went to her work in the nursery, and sure enough, the little baby was there, sweet and tiny.
Later, the nursery nun walked up to Huestis and slapped her good and hard across the face. I read the depositions of a number of former residents who, separately, described being made to kiss an old, dead man in his coffin at the orphanage. It was uncanny how many remembered the event.
That was more or less where the conversation ended. He just asked the plaintiff what she would say if he said that. In another deposition, a man called Joseph Eskra, who spent time at St. Another resident who was there at the same time described a large group of children standing on the shore of Lake Champlain and joining hands to form a human chain. Slowly the children walked into the water to search for a missing boy. The children had to walk in a long way before the water reached their waists.
Before they got to the sharp drop-off, the word came down the line that the boy had been found. Eskra had last seen Willette out in the lake, where some bullies were trying to keep him from grabbing onto a floating log. Now someone carried him to the beach and laid him out on the sand in his striped bathing shorts, legs splayed. Soon firefighters were crouched around him trying to push air in as the sheriff, who had arrived in his patrol boat, stood nearby.
But it was too late. Eskra talked about another boy who failed to turn up at dinner one night. A group of about 20 set out with flashlights to look for him. They found him near the swing set, tied to a tree, frozen to death. Eskra took Borsykowsky at face value and tried to be helpful. It was happening in Albany too, with survivors of an orphanage called St. The two cases played out in isolation, but I was amazed by the similarities: Though they were run by nuns from different orders, the orphanages were only miles apart.
The claims of former orphans — and the counter-claims of church supporters — were tearing each community apart. The stories made the front page of each local paper, but not a single person I interviewed from either case seemed to know about the other. The Albany case had one crucial difference: Orphanage survivors had managed to get a police investigation. The Albany fight began with Bill Bonneau, who had seen his three younger brothers hauled off to St. Only two made it out.
The youngest, Gilbert, died when he was 8. Doctors said it was meningitis. But in , more than two decades later, Bill got a phone call from a stranger who said her name was Marian Maynard. Bill told me that Maynard had an urgent message about Gilbert: Before Gilbert died, he was beaten by a nun.
Maynard said the nun had savagely hit Gilbert in the head and he died the next day. For decades Maynard had kept the story to herself — but she happened to catch sight of the nun in Troy that day, then raced home and worked her way through all the Bonneaus in the phone book. She ended the conversation promising to call him back. But days and then weeks and then years came and went, and the call never came. The ad ran for many years. It was when a local reporter named Dan Lynch noticed the ad and wondered if it came with a story.
Was he a victim of a brutal institutional environment? Has the truth surrounding his death been covered up? Dozens of former St. One spoke of being thrown down concrete stairs, one was forced to kneel for hours in punishment, one was hung upside down in the laundry chute, and one was forced to eat his own vomit. One heard it snap. He died in In the s, a witness would tell police that she had seen a nun brutally beat the boy days before he died. All three pathologists agreed there was no evidence that the boy died of meningitis.
The man said he knew nothing about the investigation. But despite all the evidence that the Bonneaus had managed to gather, the DA never brought any charges, and no lawyer ever agreed to take the case and file a civil suit. The request was denied. Sally had told Widman about a day at the orphanage when she and a girl named Patty Zeno had been told to wash the windows. Patty was on the sill when the explosive Sister Priscille, even angrier than usual, came storming into the room, punched Sally on the arm, and told her to leave.
But Sally was still there to see what happened next: The nun reached through the window frame and shoved Patty hard. Patty spun away from the window, somehow leaving her left foot on the sill. Lurching past the nun, Sally grabbed that ankle and an arm as Patty crashed hard up against the brick wall on her left.
Somehow Sally managed to get Patty back inside, and then for a while they hung on to each other crying. After Sally first told Widman this story, a woman contacted him and said a nun called Sister Priscille had tried to push her from a window. It was Patty herself. Sister Priscille had it out for her, she said, because she had once reported her to Vermont Catholic Charities, which had an office next door.
Patty remembered the nun warning her, You will pay for it — the same words she had mouthed as she shoved Patty off the windowsill. When they met again as adults, Sally asked Patty if she remembered the way they all used to sleep on their sides facing the same direction with their hands tucked under their head as if in prayer. The swimming lessons were another case in point. Like Sally Dale, many children had claimed it was common at St. But when it came to the nuns, they had a different story.
One said she never went swimming at all, one said she went down to the lake but only to supervise the boys, one said she swam with the girls, and one said that she and many other nuns swam at the lake but only when the children were not there. One said the nuns did not have a rowboat. Even some of the orphans said they had never seen a rowboat at the orphanage, let alone been thrown in the water. Initially, it was like one of those great tilting historic debates, like the assassination of JFK, where one person saw a gunman on the grassy knoll, but with equal certainty another said the knoll was empty.
Leroy Baker said he was thrown in by a nun and a male counselor. They told him to swim or drown. Richard MacDonald said he was thrown too. It was Nov. At least four more would follow. Robert Widman sat on her right. Her husband was nearby. Sartore was masterful, switching directions deftly and often, so that plaintiffs could not be certain of his next move.
Pressing Sally for facts one minute, he would pivot and ask her to speculate on strange, impossible questions about the nature of time and the workings of memory, before pulling back and lightening up, pausing a beat, then circling back around to prod and probe. Sally pointed out her scars for the camera. Here was where Sister Blanche pressed the iron into her hand. Here was the broken left pinkie from when a nun, whom she later named as Sister Claire, kicked her legs out from under her on the ice.
Here were the scars from when she slapped out the fire on her snow pants. Here was the problem with her ribs from where the nuns pounded her with their fists and it was so hard to breathe. Here was where this wrist was broken, and then here this wrist; here was the elbow, and the scar on the knuckles on both hands, and here was the knee that was fractured. Sartore, a big man whose build had been shaped by long years of competitive swimming, knew how to pace himself.
He was cool and implacable for almost the entire 19 hours. Sartore zeroed in. She just knew that she didn't like it. Did Sally think of it as abuse back when she was at the orphanage, Sartore asked? Back then she had not even heard that term. The brothers who she said abused her down at the lake — how did she know they were actually men rather than boys from the other side of the orphanage?
She held up her fingers several inches apart, unmistakably suggesting the length of a penis. Then she broke off in a goofy laugh, looking around at Widman. She spoke about it as a child would. Devoy had his own rooms and dining table, at which he was often joined by seminarians. Sally told Sartore that when she was quite little, she had done her very best to be good for a whole week, and for once it had worked. She set his table and took in his food and placed it on the table before him. He yanked down her panties, touched her backside, and told her that she had cute buns.
The next time he tried it, the headstrong girl spilled the soup in his lap. Sally declined his invitation to undermine herself. As Sartore and Sally moved from past to present and back again, small, vivid memories punctuated the larger grim narratives. Sally recalled, still mystified, that sometimes in summer a nun would wake the children in the middle of the night because an ice cream truck had come by with leftovers. The children had to eat as much as they could, right there on the spot, because there was nowhere at St.
Sally had brought some old photos. Here was Doris Jacob in the kindergarten; it must have been around Here was Sally in a tiny cap and gown that Irene made for kindergarten graduation. Sartore asked about when Sally saw Patty Zeno pushed out the window: How had Sally forgotten that day? An expert witness that Widman had called explained that for more than years, psychologists and psychiatrists working with victims of trauma had documented buried memories that burst out into the open, as well as troubling gaps where time had seemingly vanished. Bessel van der Kolk, a Harvard psychiatrist, testified that people like Sally and her fellow orphans are doubly hurt — by the original abuse and then also by the litigation.
Sally had been inconsistent in some of her claims. She said her memories came flooding back at the reunion, but she had given an interview detailing some of the abuses a year before that. When shown a report of that interview, in her deposition, she said she had no recollection of giving it. Also, she said she was around 4 or 6 when she kissed the boy in the coffin, and that Sister Noelle had been present.
Sally said at first that Sister Jane of the Rosary was the only nun she really liked. Later she described Sister Jane as an oppressive and abusive figure. And in her account of the day that one adult after another was told to beat Sally but could not bring themselves to do it, some details and a name varied over time. But Anna Salter, an expert in the psychology of predators and victims, testified that it was common for a child to be attached to someone who abused them, and that what tended to come through with recovered memories was the overall narrative — not necessarily all the specific details.
Even if they were remembered, they might be too embarrassing to describe. Nonetheless, Sartore kept returning to the point. Had Sally consciously pushed her memories away? Could Sally have called up her memory of seeing the boy who fell if someone had asked her about it before the reunion? Or rather, buried. On the fourth hour of the third day of their deposition, when Sartore came back round to the boy, he sounded a bit bored by the events. But he was fully engaged when he asked Sally what allowed her to summon those recollections.
How did Sally remember events that she said she forgot 50 years ago? Could she now recall any memories she had between and of events that she said occurred in the early s? When did her memories become repressed?
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When did she forget the thing that she forgot? Borsykowsky gave a quick and unequivocal no and didn't respond to written questions I sent him afterward. Sartore initially said no, but then to my surprise invited me to his office in downtown Burlington, which I visited on an autumn day.
After a few minutes, the man whose voice I recognized so well from the deposition tapes came sweeping into the reception area, guiding me into his wood-paneled office and offering me a seat at a green table. I had wanted to meet him for a long time, and now here he was — Darth Vader, in business casual. Sixteen years after the St. Responding to my inquiries, he paused occasionally, kept his face perfectly expressionless, and fixed me with a very long, uncomfortable stare.
As the seconds ticked by, I felt I was being sized up, inspected for weak spots. When the litigation began, he would sit in his office late at night, just trying to get a handle on who was who. Over the course of five or six years, Sartore said, he interviewed nearly nuns. The depositions were a chance to learn the facts. What happened psychologically? What happened sexually? And who was there and who knew it? They were also, he said, a dry run for the combat of a trial, a chance to see how witnesses would present, whether they would cry, whether they seemed genuine.
He compared it to a medical examination. Does this hurt? She had been so stoic, yet I could see his poking and prodding caused her a great deal of pain. I wondered if he had reservations about going after her that hard? Did we ultimately go to the lengths of verifying those documentations? But there was rational documentation. You can spin any kind of speculation out of that. Things that grew up to be the mythology of the organization.
About four years after the St. I wanted to know how his convictions had fared since then. Surely it had become more possible to imagine that a nun might say something untrue? And that was as far as he would go. Sartore stayed rigorously professional. If he had any doubts, it was clear he would not share them.
One woman, who was so fond of the mother superior that she had stayed in touch with her for years, recalled that she was made to slap herself in the mouth. She said it was because she talked too much. In the s, said another, some children were sent to the attic in punishment and it scared them, but she felt they had been sent there because they were hateful. Being hit with the clappers, said another woman, made her a better person. A man said it was what he deserved. One woman recalled being thrown in the lake from a boat.
One said her sister was shut in the closet. One was punished for wetting the bed, and another was made to sleep in the same direction as the other girls with her hands under her head. The priests on the witness list were comfortable being questioned — never defensive, just resolute — and they gave nothing up. Father Foster, by then a monsignor, waited until the end of his deposition, then chided the lawyers for failing to ask him about one important topic. Taking control of the moment, he delivered an impassioned speech praising all the sacrifices the nuns had made.
The women had worked so hard, laboring through the day and sitting up till dawn with the children if they were sick. Nobody was perfect, and goodness knows, the children at St. Widman and Morris deposed about 20 nuns. Many had been born in Canada and were raised speaking French. They joined the order when they were teenagers or young women, and from the time they entered the order, taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Sisters of Providence nuns wore the same uniform and ate the same food. They talked about being proud of their long years of service, and about being moved around for most of their lives.
Some had taught at local Catholic day schools or at another orphanage in Chicago or had returned to the motherhouse in Montreal. They were moved around inside the orphanage as well. In the s, Sister Noelle became a coiffeur — a beautician — for the nuns. For the most part, the emotional tenor of the depositions was muted. The nuns were tentative, polite, careful. Sister Donat, once mother superior, acknowledged that the children did have to sleep with their hands on the pillow.
It made supervision easier, she said. Sister Ladislas said she saw Sister Leontine slap a child in the face. Sister Miles said that she herself once slapped a child in the face. She felt terrible about it. Another used the paddle, but never on the skin, and only when it was badly needed. Others said the rules of the order strictly forbade physical discipline. She had no problems, and she had never touched a child in anger.
Yet Widman asked her about records he had obtained showing that she had hit a boy so hard that he was sent to the hospital. She had been sent away the same day to receive counseling from a psychiatrist in Montreal — a significant response, considering that corporal punishment for children was not uncommon in that era. Sister Fernande de Grace readily admitted to the incident.
She regretted it. It was only the paddle. How many times? How many times did the counselor crawl into bed with you? Give us a number. It had been hard enough for some of the orphanage survivors to tell Widman about the abuse they suffered. Most of them found it excruciating to sit in front of a bunch of fancy opposing lawyers and tell the story again and again, as it was subjected to hostile scrutiny. Dale Greene was 39 when he gave his deposition in Handsome and smart, he had been a gifted athlete and a top altar boy at St.
But now he was recovering from a stroke, which his doctor attributed to stress. He needed a cane to walk. Greene told the attorneys that a counselor assaulted him in his bed in the boys dorm at St. Over what period of time?
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Greene found it hard to say. The defense paused, lingered over another detail, and then returned to the counting. Might have happened 10 or 20 times to you; is that accurate? Is that your best recollection today? I have no idea. But it went on for years. The defense attorneys asked plaintiffs to estimate the frequency of their rape or molestation by day, by week, by year, and then overall.
Then they would get the plaintiff to compare the estimates and to count — so if it was x times a week, that would be y times in total, right? David Borsykowsky asked one plaintiff, who said she was digitally raped by a nun, how far the nun had penetrated her. The woman had been 5 at the time. Defense attorneys asked plaintiffs if they had personally done anything to provoke being punched in the face.
Or if they could precisely define sexual abuse. Sometimes the defense questioned whether a plaintiff had even been at the orphanage, until the plaintiff provided proof. Given all that, it was remarkable how few times plaintiffs blew up. Greene struggled to explain. Greene had had enough. He launched into the most impassioned soliloquy of the entire litigation. He spoke for himself, and, whether or not he realized, for everyone else in his shoes. And I answered it already, the same question.
I found out — when I found out that there was a lawsuit, I wanted to be involved in it. Not because I was going to get money. Because I was going to finally straighten out shit that happened to me all my life and should not have never happened. And you guys here are representing people that you know nothing about. But you guys are upsetting me. The schooling was pretty good, and we got to do a lot of stuff as far as sports and shit like that.
But I mean, overall it sucked — excuse me. Or you had to eat things a normal person would not eat; but because they served it, you had to eat it. And if you got sick and threw up, you had to even eat your own puke. One deposition early in the litigation required Jack Sartore and the other defense attorneys to visit Sarasota, Florida. Widman and his wife, Cynthia, took them to Siesta Key, a barrier island, to go swimming and have dinner. The key was renowned for its pure white sand and clean, inviting water. For once, Widman recalled, Sartore, who had sternly avoided even minor friendly chitchat, submitted to being social.
Maybe he would relax a little? It was a lovely day that turned into a beautiful evening. The group sat outdoors and ate a delicious fish dinner, and had a civil discussion about the case. Widman believed that the litigation was hurting the orphans. It opened old wounds, and it created new ones. He told Sartore that his plaintiffs deserved an apology and that they needed to be able to get counseling for the rest of their lives. He asked Sartore if he would settle.
By spring , a federal judge had ruled on two of the most important issues, and for the survivors of St. And worse still, the St. They would each have to bring their own cases as isolated individuals. There would be no chance to stack the stories up, to show the similarities, to let the patterns emerge and overwhelm disbelief. The shattered plaintiffs were going to have to go it alone against the Catholic Church. Some of the plaintiffs dropped their cases.
A judge dismissed another five. He ruled against Marilyn Noble because of the statute of limitations. She had written Orphan Girl No. But the memoir, she told me, was used as evidence that she had been aware for almost two decades of the damage she suffered. The judge ruled that the statute of limitations barred her claims of emotional and physical abuse.
Sally had once told someone about having been forced to eat vomit. She had told someone else that she had been beaten and banished to a terrifying attic. These incidents were enough, the judge said, to have obliged Sally to take legal action at that time, or to forever lose her chance.
Yes, he conceded, she said she told a social worker about the seminarians who molested her at the lake, but there were no records to show that her complaint was passed on to anyone who had the authority to investigate it. All along, the church had argued that if any abuse had taken place, it would have been the sole responsibility of the individual abuser — not the mother superior, not the order of nuns, not Vermont Catholic Charities , and not the diocese.
If the victim could not offer proof that they had reported the abuse to someone in authority, then those in authority were not responsible. He believed that after hearing story after story after story, any reasonable person would agree. So Widman planned to appeal the rulings. Those appeals still faced long odds.
The process could take a year. Some of the plaintiffs were unwell and might die. Others were already coming apart from the stress. And even if they all made it to the courtroom, there were no guarantees that they would win. But a victory for the plaintiffs could have catastrophic effects for the diocese — and for the church as a whole.
US bishops, we now know, had been swapping pedophile priests among parishes and across state lines for decades, and they could do the math. If a precedent was set, an untold number of cases could follow. The path ahead had become far riskier for both sides. In the end, Widman told me, he blinked and they blinked. In early , the defense agreed to settle. They should take some money now, while they still had a chance.
But when she got her settlement check and saw the paltry dollar amount, she laughed out loud. She thought about the church and how much money it had and every cruel, awful, scarring thing the nuns and the priests had done. Could you spare it? At least she paid off some of her bills. Leroy Baker, who had filed a suit with another attorney, got a call to tell him that the church had offered to settle. Baker testified that he had been molested and abused and emotionally devastated when he was at St. When they did, he said, he walked three blocks to his old landlord, paid the rent he owed, and headed to the closest bar.
The money was gone in a week and a half. Sally Dale had wanted to keep fighting. Having been abandoned at St. And then when they hauled her out of bed in the dark for special private tortures. Of all the orphans who had passed through St.
She had suffered so much, and worked so hard for the lawsuit. She wanted her day in court, however brutal it might be. But there was nothing else to do. She said goodbye to Widman and to the others, put her papers in a thick leather briefcase, and went back to her quiet life with her husband in Middletown, Connecticut, baking cookies for the neighborhood children.
It was a freezing day in January when I passed through a long-locked door and first set foot into what had once been St. The beautiful, spooky old hulk of a building was dark and frigid, and as I walked through the hallways, the sound of my feet against the worn wood floors was amplified in the long corridors. In the cold winter light, the basement dining room, once an optimistic yellow, had an uneasy green tinge. Here and there the paint blistered. I tried to picture all the girls sitting here at their little tables, eating their food and keeping their heads down, dreading the consequences if they got sick.
I walked up the stairs, past the polished wood posts, past exposed brick and moldering mortar, past the lattice-panel doorway that led to the confessional. A dark corridor ran the length of the building, as it did on each of the three other floors. Polished by generations of children, it still reflected a dull gleam.
After years of talking to former residents, and reading their words, I felt like I already knew every nook and corner. Here in the confessional, a young boy told a priest that another priest had touched him. Here on this floor, a young girl had trooped up and down, staggering with exhaustion in the middle of the night. Here was the freezing bathroom where a nun swung a girl by her back brace until she bounced off the walls.
Here at the elevator door a girl had clutched each side of the doorway in a mad panic as two nuns behind her tugged her into the small space. Here, finally, on the top floor, was a pinched, steep staircase caked in dust, and at the top of it, the attic. Every inch of the building below had been cataloged, labeled, and scrubbed.
But the vast, eerie attic, with its immense, crisscrossing beams and dark rafters, felt almost like a forest, a wild place. It occurred to me as I stepped nervously across the loft that the nuns were probably frightened of the attic too. Even when they punished children there, they often went up in pairs. Except maybe for Sister James Mary. Here, among the statues and the old chests, she had strapped an unhappy teenage girl into a chair that the nun said could fry her. I tried to conjure up Sally, to see her in the chair. I wanted to tell her that I knew what happened to her.
But all that was left were echoes and dust. More than anything else, what the St. What they got instead was a modest check, the amount of which was to be yet another secret. After the case was settled, Widman headed back to Florida, where he started taking on pro bono adoption cases and taught an ethics class at the University of Florida law school.
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