The former orphanage
Even as Vermont law enforcement officials announced Monday the formation of a task force to investigate claims of abuse at the long-shuttered St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage, they acknowledged the challenges that it will face.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan suggested that the probe, prompted by a recent Buzzfeed story detailing decades of abuse suffered by children
, could focus more on fact-finding than legal action. The story includes claims that children died at the hands of nuns.
Many of the victims and alleged perpetrators are dead or elderly, and the statutes of limitation have expired for many acts at the North Avenue orphanage, which closed in 1974.
"While there may be challenges given the current state of our laws ... there should be no challenge to bringing truth and reconciliation and closure and justice for victims," Donovan said. He added, "Justice doesn't always occur in a courtroom."
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said the task force can achieve three goals: It will examine the possibility to bring murder cases, for which there is no statute of limitation, provide an avenue for victims to speak and heal, and help prevent future problems.
The mayor asked victims and their families to come forward and work with the task force.
"I believe these reports of abuse," Weinberger said during a press conference inside the Burlington Police Department. "The city failed them. [And] the justice system did not provide for closure."
Officials refused to discuss even a rough timeline for the work.
"This will not be easy and this will not be resolved quickly," Donovan said. "It's going to take time and resources. There are significant legal obstacles that we will face in this case."
Weinberger said the group intends to have in place a process to handle victim claims by the end of the week.
Burlington detectives and members of the Vermont State Police Cold Case homicide unit will handle the criminal inquiry.
On Sunday, Bishop Christopher Coyne pledged full cooperation
with the probe. Weinberger said that Coyne's stance "stands in sharp contrast to the church's past posture toward St. Joseph's."
Coyne told reporters that he believed all relevant church records had already been turned over in previous cases, though a diocese staffer will search files anew.
Burlington Police Chief Brandon del Pozo said investigators would not hesitate to use subpoenas to "seize all records" from the diocese if necessary.
Among those in the crowd was Shelburne resident Louise Piche, who lived at the orphanage with her two siblings and said she witnessed instances of abuse.
At one point, she told Donovan that it was inaccurate to claim that the victims had "suffered in silence."
"Victims have not suffered in silence," said Piche, 73. "They have suffered for not being listened to or not being believed."
Former residents of St. Joseph's filed dozens of lawsuits against the church in the 1990s but were largely unsuccessful in securing large settlements or securing broader change.
Retired Burlington Free Press
reporter Sam Hemingway attended the press conference. He wrote dozens of stories about the scandal in the 1990s and established relationships with many of the victims.
"I hope this isn't just for show, and I don't think it is," Hemingway said afterward. "But they've got a tough row to hoe."
Hemingway said he has long believed the timing worked against the victims. Had they come forward and pursued litigation in the mid-2000s, after the Boston church sex abuse scandal drew international attention, Hemingway said, they may have had more success.
"They can't repair everything that's happened," Hemingway said, "but perhaps [victims] will have a feeling before their lives end that someone cared."