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It was a late summer afternoon, Sally Dale recalled, when the boy was thrown through the fourth-floor window. Her right hand slapped down on the left, rebounded up a little, then landed again. For just a moment, the room was still. Sally, who was speaking under oath, tried to explain it. She started again. A nun was standing at the window, Sally said. She straightened her arms out in front of her. There were only two people in the yard, she said: Sally herself and a nun who was escorting her.

In a tone that was still completely bewildered, she recalled asking, Sister? The nun told her she had a vivid imagination. We are going to have to do something about you. Girls usually moved when they were 6, though residents of St. She recounted his fall in a deposition on Nov. I watched the deposition — all 19 hours of grainy, scratchy videotape — more than two decades later.

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By that time sexual abuse scandals had ripped through the Catholic Church, shattering the silence that had for so long protected its secrets. It was easier for accusers in general to come forward, and easier for people to believe their stories, even if the stories sounded too awful to be true.

Even if they had happened decades ago, when the accusers were only children.

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Even if the people they were accusing were pillars of the community. It is the history of unrelenting physical and psychological abuse of captive children. Across thousands of miles, across decades, the abuse took eerily similar forms: People who grew up in orphanages said they were made to kneel or stand for hourssometimes with their arms straight out, sometimes holding their boots or some other item.

They were forced to eat their own vomit. They were dangled upside down out windows, over wells, or in laundry chutes. Children were locked in cabinets, in closets, in attics, sometimes for days, sometimes so long they were forgotten.

They were sexually abused. They were mutilated. Sally herself described witnessing at least two incidents in which she said at St. At its peak in the s, the American orphanage system included more than 1, institutions, partly supported with public funding but usually run by religious orders, including the Catholic Church. Outside the United States, the orphanage system and the wreckage it produced has undergone substantial official scrutiny over the last two decades. In Canada, the UK, Germany, Ireland, and Australia, multiple formal government inquiries have subpoenaed records, taken witness testimony, and found, time and again, that children coned to orphanages — in many cases, Catholic orphanages — were victims of severe abuse.

The inquiries focused primarily on sexual abuse, not physical abuse or murder, but taken together, the reports showed almost limitless harm that was the result not just of individual cruelty but of systemic abuse. In the United States, however, no such reckoning has taken place. 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.

Private settlements could be as little as a few thousand dollars. Government bodies have rarely pursued the allegations. So in a journey that lasted four years, I went around the country, and even around the world, in search of the truth about this vast, unnarrated chapter of American experience.

Eventually I focused on St. The former residents of St. Their tales were strikingly similar, each adding weight and credibility to the others. In these s, St. When I first started looking, it seemed that all that remained of St. But over the course of years I found that there was far more to discover. More than the former residents themselves knew, and more than was uncovered during the s legal battle. Through tens of thousands of s of documents, some of them secret, as well as dozens of interviews, what I found at St.

While it cannot alter the past, the Diocese is doing everything it can to ensure children are protected. For decades, Sally Dale, like so many of the children of St. Many of the orphans went on to marry, and to have children and grandchildren, without letting on that they had spent any time in an orphanage.

Some, their trust forever shattered, had been unable to forge any close connections. Robert Widman, the attorney who sat beside Sally, offered them a chance to be heard, and to force the world outside the orphanage to reckon with what went on inside its walls. That legal effort lasted three years.

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Decades later, he described it as one of the most wrenching cases of his life. For the former residents of St. It was a chance most of them had never had before: to be heard, and maybe believed. For the Catholic Church, too, the stakes were enormous.

If the Burlington plaintiffs won, it could create a precedent and encourage civil cases at a massive scale. The financial consequences would be hard to fathom. Widman and his band of orphans posed a profound threat, and the church was going to bring all its might to oppose it.

Philip White was sitting in his large, third-floor law office one afternoon in when the mysterious caller arrived. He said his name was Joseph Barquin. White invited him to have a seat and tell his story. Barquin asked White to send his secretary out so the two men could speak privately. Barquin said he had recently married, and that his new wife had been shocked by the sight of terrible scars on his genitals.

Barquin told White what he had told her: that in the early s, when he was a young boy, he had spent a few years in an orphanage called St. It had been a dark and terrifying place run by an order of nuns called the Sisters of Providence. Barquin recalled a girl who was thrown down stairs, and he remembered the thin lines of blood that trickled out of her nose and ear afterward. He saw a little boy shaken into uncomprehending shock. He saw other children beaten over and over.

A nun at St. To get help with the cost, and to get an apology, Barquin spoke to two priests at the diocese, but he received very little response. Now he wanted to sue. He had come to the right lawyer. As a prosecutor in Newport, Vermont, and then as a private attorney, White had devoted his career to challenging and changing the prevailing wisdom about young victims of sexual abuse.

BeforeWhite told me, social services typically steered child abuse victims away from court, because the process was thought to be too traumatic for the children and the cases were too hard to prove. So he and some of his colleagues brought together social services, police, and probation officers and created a new set of protocols for how abuse should be addressed.

White and his colleagues traveled around the state, and eventually the country, encouraging different agencies to work together, and educating mental health workers and teachers about how and why to report abuse. Whenever a young client testified, White threw a party, with cake and balloons and streamers.

He told the children that regardless of how the case was decided, they had spoken their truth, and that was the victory. He knew from experience what it was like to challenge the diocese. And as hard as it would still have been, in that era, to convince jurors that a priest could be a sexual predator, making that argument about a nun was going to be much harder.

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White arranged a press conference for Barquin to tell his story, in hopes it might bring other St. In his years since leaving the orphanage, Barquin had led an adventurous life. He had worked as a diver, unearthing old shipwrecks and ancient fossils.

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But the day of his press conference, Barquin felt like he was lighting a match inside a dark and ominous cave. He was scared, but hopeful that he might inspire others to do the same. White hoped he might hear from a few more former St. He heard from Soon a support group called the Survivors of St.

Participants said it grew to 80 members. The meetings were unpredictable. Some former residents said that the orphanage was the best thing that ever happened to them. Others recounted constant cruelty and physical abuse. Some threatened violence against clergy members. One woman said she was writing a book. Another, who had been at the orphanage in the s, called to tell her story, weeping in fear that God would punish her for saying it aloud.

One man turned up outrageously drunk. Another spoke about how, at home, he would regularly lock himself in a box. Someone wrote to White to warn him that the diocese had sent a spy.

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Around that time, one former resident killed himself. Survivors fought among themselves about what strategy to pursue. At one meeting, a woman was shouted down when she suggested that they all contact the bishop together. Some wanted therapists present at the meetings, but others were appalled by the suggestion. Eventually White decided to convene a big gathering at the Hampton Inn in Colchester, Vermont, on the weekend of Sept. Sally Dale received an invitation. But she was curious to see some of the old faces and find out who was still around.

It was Roger Barber, one of the boys from St. Sally remembered some of those things. She sometimes remembered bad things too, such as times when the nuns hit her. But it was a long time ago.

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She recognized few of the 50 or 60 people in attendance. Some of the women recognized each other not by name but by : Thirty-two! White began the day by introducing Barquin and some other people who were there to help. A man spoke about the Bible and turning to God in times like these, and two therapists said they were available for anyone who wanted to talk. Local journalists were on hand too. Then Barquin told everyone about the nun taking him into the closet.

Roger Barber spoke next. Sally remembered him saying that a nun told a group of older boys to rape him. A lanky, weathered man stood up and addressed another man before the whole crowd. I felt bad about that all of my life. Then one woman spoke about how nuns wiped her face in her own vomit, and Sally started to remember that the same thing had happened to her. She could hear the voice of one sister telling her, after she threw up her food, You will not be this stubborn!

You will sit and you will eat it. As Sally listened to the awful stories, something ruptured inside her. Though the reunion was a two-day event, Sally left that first afternoon with a crushing headache. The next morning she had diarrhea and was unable to speak without heaving. S outh of Lone Rock Point, where North Avenue runs high above the eastern shore of Lake Champlain, beyond the winding paths that meander through the cemetery, behind the heavy doors of the large redbrick building, Sally was back in the orphanage.

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