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Thursday, September 16, 2021

St. Joseph’s Orphanage Survivors Say Church Must Do More

Posted By on Thu, Sep 16, 2021 at 8:31 PM

Former St. Joseph's residents speaking at Thursday's press conference - COLIN FLANDERS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Colin Flanders ©️ Seven Days
  • Former St. Joseph's residents speaking at Thursday's press conference
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington continues to disregard the lifelong impacts of the physical and sexual abuse carried out at the St. Joseph’s Orphanage, according to some former residents, who are calling on Bishop Christopher Coyne to compensate the remaining survivors of the long-shuttered facility.

Former orphanage residents expressed mixed emotions during a press conference at a South Burlington hotel on Thursday, recalling how a two-year restorative process has helped many of them begin to work through their deep-seated traumas.

But they said their attempts to move on have been undermined by the diocese's refusal to engage with them on certain issues, including the question of compensation. Some speakers said they have spent thousands and thousands of dollars on therapy over the years. Others referenced the untold amount of money funneled into the orphanage from both the state and from their own parents.

“They took money out of my father's pocket and abused us for it,” said Debi Gevry-Ellsworth, who was placed at the orphanage at the age of 2 along with her brother and sister and spent 10 years there. Her brother later killed himself.

Instead of attempting to repair the harm, said Michael Ryan, a former resident, Catholic leaders want to “sweep it all under the rug, just like they have all been for decades.”

“They need to provide restitution for their sins of the past,” he said.

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Monday, August 16, 2021

A Historic Synagogue in Burlington’s Old North End Is For Sale

Posted By on Mon, Aug 16, 2021 at 4:39 PM

Interior of the synagogue - RABBI JAN SALZMAN
  • Rabbi Jan Salzman
  • Interior of the synagogue
The historic building that served as Burlington’s first synagogue is for sale. Pomerleau Real Estate listed the Gothic Revival building at 168 Archibald Street last week for $650,000, describing it as “charming.”

The listing went on: “This property has so much potential and is in an outstanding location! The opportunities are endless!”

The structure’s brick façade is lined with pointed arch windows and small circular openings known as oculi. A larger oculus, inscribed with a Star of David, is set above the large, white arched doorway. The building has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1978, and is also on the Vermont State Register of Historic Places.

The congregation of Ahavath Gerim owns the 3,374-square-foot building. Board member Shimmy Cohen said the group has been diminishing, lacks a spiritual leader and has stopped meeting for services. Its board decided to put the building on the market because it needs money to maintain its cemetery in South Burlington.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Another Sexual Abuse Lawsuit Filed Against the Burlington Diocese

Posted By on Wed, May 19, 2021 at 5:58 PM

Bishop Christopher Coyne at a press conference on sex abuse in 2019 - SASHA GOLDSTEIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Sasha Goldstein ©️ Seven Days
  • Bishop Christopher Coyne at a press conference on sex abuse in 2019
A New Jersey man is suing the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington over sexual abuse dating to 1978 involving a since-disgraced priest who was under the diocese's authority.

The civil complaint, filed in Vermont Superior Court on Tuesday, accuses the diocese of allowing the Rev. Leo Courcy Jr. to continue his ministry for decades with "unfettered" access to children, despite knowing he was a pedophile.

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Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Fire Destroys Historic Methodist Church in Middlesex

Posted By and on Wed, Feb 24, 2021 at 2:22 PM

Firefighters by the smoking ruins of the church - JEFF BARON ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Jeff Baron ©️ Seven Days
  • Firefighters by the smoking ruins of the church
A fire swept through the historic Middlesex United Methodist Church on Wednesday morning, destroying a picturesque house of worship that was more than a century old.

The flames spread quickly through the wooden structure, according to Waterbury Fire Chief Gary Dillon, whose department was one of several that responded. Around noontime, the bell tower collapsed.

Sharon Merchant was there to see it.

"I've been going there since I was born, and I'm 60 years old," she said. "I was baptized there, married there, buried my father there, the whole shebang. I talked to my 93-year-old mother today, and she's like, 'I'm supposed to be buried there.'"

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Monday, December 14, 2020

Orphanage Task Force Finds Credible Evidence of Abuse — But Not Murder

Posted By on Mon, Dec 14, 2020 at 8:23 PM

The former orphanage - NATALIE WILLIAMS ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Natalie Williams ©️ Seven Days
  • The former orphanage
A task force investigating allegations of murder at the long-shuttered St. Joseph's Catholic Orphanage found no evidence to substantiate claims that children were killed there, according to a report released Monday.

But the task force did find credible evidence of rampant physical, sexual and emotional abuse by the nuns and priests who operated the North Avenue orphanage — claims that officials say were never properly investigated at the time.

"It’s clear that abuse did occur at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, and that many children suffered,” Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan said at a press conference Monday afternoon, moments after releasing a nearly 300-page report on the institution.

"Our community, and the institutions of the community, including law enforcement, turned a blind eye," Donovan said. "We did not see them. We did not hear them."

The release of the task force's report brings an end to a two-year investigation that was sparked by an August 2018 Buzzfeed News story titled "We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage."

The story relied in part on depositions and first-hand interviews with former residents. Many of the allegations had also previously been documented in dozens of victim lawsuits filed in the 1990s and extensive reporting on the orphanage, primarily by the Burlington Free Press.

One deposition from 1996 featured a former orphanage resident named Sally Dale detailing how she saw a nun push a child from a fourth-floor window. Another claim involved a nun pushing a young girl down a staircase, after which the girl was allegedly never seen again.

Other former residents recalled various forms of abuse that Buzzfeed writer Christine Kenneally described as "straightforwardly awful to the downright bizarre."

In compiling its own report, the task force, with the help of Burlington Police Department investigators, set out to speak with anyone who either lived at the orphanage between 1940 and the time of its closure in 1974 or was related to someone who had. It managed to interview nearly 50 people, many of whom shared claims matching those from the Buzzfeed story, with descriptions of severe neglect and abuse.

One of the most common allegations was beatings. According to the report, survivors recalled nuns using wooden paddles, rosaries and rulers to punish children for seemingly any reason — transgressions as simple as not making the bed correctly or looking out the window, for instance. The beatings sometimes resulted in broken bones or teeth, with some survivors reporting the nuns were less likely to abuse children who they knew went home on the weekends.

A large percentage of survivors also alleged severe mental and emotional abuse, recalling for investigators how nuns would threaten them or say derogatory things about their parents. Many individuals recalled being locked in dark spaces — closets, attics, footlockers, old trunks. Some said there was a chair in the attic that the nuns tied them to.

"Survivors reported that there was no peace to be had at the Orphanage," reads one particularly striking passage of the report. "Children were not nurtured or treated with kindness and love. Many reported that they did not experience any form of healthy, safe, nurturing touch, such as a hug. One cried at the memory of strangers’ hugs during a parade through Burlington celebrating the end of World War II. After years at the Orphanage, it was the first time the survivor could remember having been held with affection."

Several people who spoke to investigators said they were frequently sexually abused by priests, sometimes with more than one adult present. Some survivors said nuns also sexually abused them, with stories that "ranged from babies to older children and included allegations of singular nuns abusing children, or nuns assisting priests in their abuse," the report reads.

The task force sought to corroborate what it could about the allegations. But since murder was the only crime that was not bound by a statute of limitation, detectives spent significant time seeking to uncover evidence that might prove any homicides occurred.

The task force requested documents from the Diocese of Burlington, Vermont Catholic Charities, and the Sisters of Providence, the order of nuns who worked at St. Joseph’s.

The first two organizations provided resident review files, tracking cards and two ledgers that purportedly documented every one of the more than 13,000 children who resided at the orphanage during its 120-year existence. But the Sisters of Providence refused to cooperate with the investigation.

The task force reviewed hundreds of death certificates from the City of Burlington — as well as news reports, police documents and medical records — in search of any proof that someone died at the orphanage.

Detectives also worked with survivors to pinpoint where some of the allegations were said to have occurred, and even met with an excavation foreman, who confirmed that no human remains were found while the orphanage was being redeveloped into the rental apartments it is today, the report said.

Donovan said investigators found "no credible evidence" to prove that any murders occurred at St. Joseph's. "We believe this case is closed," he said. "As in all cases, if new episodes were to emerge, we would assess that evidence and make the appropriate determination."

Donovan said the task force would have needed to find additional evidence beyond the recollections of the survivors to prove a murder charge: "A body or a death certificate — or any type of documentary evidence that this occurred."

"In the absence of that, you are left with testimony of children," he said. "And then you weigh the credibility of children and the time of 80, 70 years ago, [and decide] whether or not that by itself is sufficient to pursue an investigation. The determination was that it was not."

Both Donovan and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said they personally heard from some survivors and believed many of their allegations to be credible.

"In coming forward and sharing their stories, these former residents of the St. Joseph's orphanage have given our community a great gift," Weinberger said. "It is the gift of fully knowing our history — our true history."

Vermont last year eliminated the civil statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse. Donovan said his office was not planning on pursuing any civil claims against any of the Catholic organizations.
In a joint statement, the Diocese of Burlington and Vermont Catholic Charities said the report's findings were largely consistent with a previous investigation into the orphanage that took place in the 1990s, including the lack of evidence that any homicides occurred.

"Our hope is that this report will finally lay to rest these allegations of murder against the sisters," the statement read.

Yet the organizations acknowledged that the report nevertheless contained "troubling and horrible" allegations of physical and sexual abuse, and that the diocese was part of a "complete failure" by the system to provide oversight to the orphanage.

"The Diocese continues to accept its full share of the blame for any sins of the past," the statement reads. "We apologize for all hurt caused and for the personal shortcomings of human beings that came before us."

State and local officials acknowledged at the time of the task force's formation that the probe could end up focusing more on fact-finding than legal action, given the relevant statutes of limitation and that many of the victims and alleged perpetrators are elderly or dead. But they said they hoped the process would provide victims a chance to heal and speak regardless of whether charges arose.

With this in mind, the task force created a committee known as the St. Joseph's Restorative Inquiry in April 2019 to focus on repairing the harm caused at the orphanage. The group, led by an independent restorative justice professional, now meets regularly and has engaged in a number of initiatives, from a writer's group to the formation of a memorial committee.

Brenda Hannon and Walter Coltey attended the press conference as spokespersons for Voices of St Joseph's Orphanage, a group of 30-plus members who are the last surviving generation who lived at the home.

Hannon recalled the fear she and many of her peers felt after being sent to live at the orphanage under the custody of "intolerant strangers," some of whom "were actually sadistic." 
"Life was unthinkable for thousands of children placed in that orphanage. We suffered physical, mental and in some cases sexual abuse," Hannon said. "We were threatened and punishment was harsh, swift and extreme. We were beaten with rods, locked in dark closets and trunks, and forced to eat our own vomited food."

The children of the orphanage — whom Hannon called "the forgotten ones" — had to suppress their fear and hide their trauma to survive, she said, and so revisiting those memories decades later "required a reluctant courage none of us knew we had."

The survivors group has made a number of requests to the Catholic organizations who were involved with the orphanage.

First, Hannon said, "we want an acknowledgement that what we say happened to us did indeed happen, and a sincere apology." The group also wants the organizations to pay for the therapies of any former orphanage resident who requests it, release all relevant records and work with the Vermont legislature to better protect vulnerable people from abuse.
The group said it did not yet have a formal response to the report given its size but was planning a press conference on Wednesday.

Hannon encouraged anyone who lived or worked at the orphanage and has not come forward do so.

"Truth deserves to be aired. Cover-up tactics should be widely exposed," she said. "We acknowledge that no one can give us back our childhood, take away the pain and shame we endured, nor untangle the mental and physical struggles many of us have had to deal with in our adult lives.

"However, we can — and we will — hold those accountable."

Read the full report here:

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Priest Shortage Claims Winooski Parish and Two Small Churches

Posted By on Wed, Jun 24, 2020 at 1:37 PM

St. Stephen Church in Winooski - DEREK BROUWER
  • Derek Brouwer
  • St. Stephen Church in Winooski
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington is closing a long-running Winooski parish and two rural churches because it doesn't have enough priests to staff them.

St. Stephen Catholic Church on Barlow Street in Winooski will hold its final Sunday mass on June 28 before the parish is dissolved and its assets merged with nearby St. Francis Xavier Parish.

St. Edward Catholic Church in Williamstown and North American Martyrs Catholic Church in Marshfield will also close, on July 1.

The Winooski closure is the first since the diocese announced a strategic plan last year that forecast future mergers. It was triggered by the departure of pastor Stephen Hornat, an Edmundite priest assigned to the parish for the last five years.
Hornat said the Society of St. Edmund, a Catholic order headquartered at Saint Michael's College in Colchester, is also facing a priest shortage and decided to withdraw those assigned to a few area parishes.

Earlier this month, the diocese informed the St. Stephen parish that it didn't have anyone to replace Hornat.

"The decision to close the church was made because of the decline in the number of priests and the inability of the Diocese to assign a priest to serve the community, as well as the very close proximity of St. Francis Xavier Church," said John McDermott, vicar general.

The diocese has lost about 60 percent of priests since 1990, according to figures published in the most recent issue of Vermont Catholic magazine. As of July 1, it will have 57 active priests serving 68 parishes and 114 church buildings, McDermott said. Nearly one-third of active priests are over the age of 60.
All three churches had been closed since March because of the coronavirus pandemic, during which time the diocese streamed mass online. Churches statewide were allowed to reopen on June 1 with reduced capacity, per an order from Gov. Phil Scott.

Though barely one square mile in size, Winooski has hosted two Catholic parishes for more than a century, the result of cultural divisions between French and Irish congregants. Originally the Irish parish, St. Stephen is the smaller of the two, with about 175 registered families, Hornat said. Its congregation trended older, but was enlivened by a handful of New American families with children.

"It was a very active parish," he said. "They were very much engaged in social outreach to the Winooski community."

The swift closure has left some longtime members feeling like their community has disintegrated overnight, music director Peg Lesage said.

"In the middle of this pandemic, it seems like one more blow," she said. "We can't even say goodbye the way we would normally say goodbye."

Lesage, who has attended St. Stephen since 1987, said the prospect of trying to join a new church while social gatherings are limited and mass-goers are masked feels daunting.

"It's hard to think about starting over," she said.

There are no immediate plans for the church property. The City of Winooski leases a portion of the land from the parish for the Winooski Senior Center, Lesage said.

McDermott said the pastor at St. Francis Xavier and Bishop Christopher Coyne will hear recommendations from parish members about how to dispose of it.

Last year, the diocese placed the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Burlington on the market for $8.5 million. The listing is still online.

Catholic church membership in Vermont has dropped from 142,000 in 1990 to 112,000 in 2019, the diocesan magazine reported. Annual infant baptisms have dropped by 80 percent. Funerals, meanwhile, are down just 12 percent. 

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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

UVM Medical Center Forced Nurses to Assist With Abortions, Regulator Claims

Posted By on Wed, Aug 28, 2019 at 3:50 PM

University of Vermont Medical Center - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo
  • University of Vermont Medical Center
The federal Office for Civil Rights on Wednesday accused the University of Vermont Medical Center of illegally forcing nurses to assist in abortions despite their religious objections.

But the hospital disputed those findings and criticized the office for a blindsiding public announcement that made a national example of UVM Medical Center in the Trump administration's effort to expand protections for religious objectors. 

The medical center also defended its approach to balancing protections for employees' beliefs with patients' access to legal care.

UVM Medical Center could lose federal funding if it refuses to change its policies.

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Thursday, August 22, 2019

Catholic Diocese Names 39 Priests 'Credibly Accused' of Sex Abuse in Vermont

Posted By on Thu, Aug 22, 2019 at 3:25 PM

Bishop Christopher Coyne at Thursday's press conference - SASHA GOLDSTEIN
  • Sasha Goldstein
  • Bishop Christopher Coyne at Thursday's press conference
In seeking to atone for the lengthy history of sexual misdeeds by clergy, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Burlington released a report Thursday morning that details the names and biographies of 39 priests since 1950 who have been credibly accused of abusing children in Vermont.

“These sins of the past continue to haunt us,” Bishop Christopher Coyne told reporters during a press conference at the diocese headquarters on Joy Drive in South Burlington. “These shameful, sinful and criminal acts have been our family secret for generations.”

Last November, a committee of seven men and women began reviewing thousands of documents related to 52 clergy members who’d served in Vermont since 1950 and who had been accused of abuse.

The committee considered three criteria to determine whether a priest was credibly accused: whether the allegation was "natural, plausible and probable"; corroborated by other evidence; or admitted to by the accused.

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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

During Evangelist's Swing Through Vermont, Picketers Greet His Flock

Posted By on Tue, May 21, 2019 at 10:10 PM

Protesters outside Champlain Valley Expo - DEREK BROUWER
  • Derek Brouwer
  • Protesters outside Champlain Valley Expo
A rainbow-themed welcome wagon greeted the thousands who drove to Champlain Valley Exposition on Tuesday to hear evangelist Franklin Graham's star-spangled message of sin and salvation. 

Fifty or so picketers bearing LGBTQ pride flags, bodysuits and hoodies flanked the entrance to the Expo grounds in an eccentric, polite protest of the preacher's anti-gay positions. One man played an accordion.

Rebecca Roose tied a pride flag around her neck like a cape and held a fluorescent sign that offered "Free hugs for sinners."

"I don't believe in the hate he is spewing, and I needed to do something, even though I have protest fatigue," she said.

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Monday, May 20, 2019

Protest Planned at Franklin Graham Event in Essex Junction

Posted By on Mon, May 20, 2019 at 7:36 PM

Franklin Graham's tour buses at Perkins Pier on Monday - SASHA GOLDSTEIN
  • Sasha Goldstein
  • Franklin Graham's tour buses at Perkins Pier on Monday
Protesters plan to picket outside a Tuesday evening event by celebrity evangelist Franklin Graham that's expected to draw thousands to the Champlain Valley Exposition.

Graham, son of the late Billy Graham, preaches a politicized form of evangelical Christianity that's outspokenly anti-LGBTQ. He's also described Islam as an "evil" religion and suggested that God helped President Donald Trump defeat Hillary Clinton in 2016. He supports so-called conversion therapy.

"He's not just a Christian evangelist," said protest organizer Carol Price, of Bristol. "He does have an underside, and that is hate speech and intolerance."

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