2019 Feature, Medium Newsroom finalist

The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Orphanage

BuzzFeed News

Feature, Medium Newsroom


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About the Project

As many as 5 million children spent time in America’s orphanages in the 20th century alone. Not all of them made it out alive.

In other countries, national investigations have exposed at least some of what transpired in such institutions. But the dark secrets of orphanage life in the US had lain buried, like the dead children who haunt survivors’ dreams — until BuzzFeed News published Christine Kenneally’s unforgettable investigation.

Survivors of St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington, Vermont, claimed to have been subjected to every imaginable abuse: dangled upside down over wells; forced to eat their own vomit; locked in cabinets or attics, sometimes for days; shoved out of windows. The abuse was so dehumanizing and so relentless, they said, that it came to seem almost ordinary, the only logic to which these children were exposed.

Kenneally set out — on what was initially a year-long contract — to find out what really happened behind St. Joseph’s high stone walls.

It was an arduous journey. She obtained and made her way through tens of thousands of pages of reports, newsletters, diary entries, letters, and depositions, as well as hundreds of hours of her own original interviews.

She tracked down former residents, who, having spent decades in the long shadow of trauma, in many cases struggled to maintain steady jobs or residences, The journey took her to Florida, Utah, Maine, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Montana, Washington, Montreal, Quebec, Melbourne, Sydney, Perth, and Adelaide, and put her in contact with more people in England, Scotland, Ireland, Germany, and New Zealand.

She even tracked down aging nuns who had once run St. Joseph’s. Because they left behind their “church names” when they retired, Keneally had in some cases little more than a 50-year-old address and a vague description of a young woman. Still, she chased down every lead, a quest that finally paid off in a Quebec living room, where a nun answered with bracing candor about pushing a young girl out of a window.

Along the way, Kenneally had to become an expert in the effect of trauma on memory, consulting with world-renowned experts.

It took four years of relentless digging, but against the entropy of time and the power of the Catholic Church, Kenneally was able to verify many of the orphans’ claims, and to connect them to similar accounts from across decades, across oceans. And crucially, she was able to show how hard the Church had worked to hide the truth, lying about historic events, suppressing documents, even assailing the credibility of survivors while relying on the testimony of sexual abusers.

Part investigation, part ghost story, “The Ghosts Of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage” evokes the children’s claustrophobic world so vividly it’s as though black-and-white pictures burst into life. Kenneally walked a difficult line between the protagonists’ long-repressed and terrifying emotions and the journalist’s obligation to objective truth; between the contours of gripping narrative and the demands of fact.