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For much of the twentieth century, a series of terrible events—abuse, both physical and psychological, and even deaths—took places inside orphanages. The survivors have been trying to tell their astonishing stories for a long time, but disbelief, secrecy, and trauma have kept them from breaking through. For ten years, Christine Kenneally has been on a quest to uncover the harrowing truth.
Centering her story on St. Joseph’s, a Catholic orphanage in Vermont, Kenneally has written a stunning account of a series of crimes and abuses. But her work is not confined to one place. Following clues that take her into the darkened corners of several institutions across the globe, she finds a trail of terrifying stories and a courageous group of survivors who are seeking justice. Ghosts of the Orphanage is an incredible true crime story and a reckoning with a past that has stayed buried for too long, with tragic consequences.
The virtue of discretion is one of the most necessary virtues in religious life. A discreet Sister is a pillar in a house. One who lacks discretion can do considerable harm.
—Reports of Provincial Superior of Official Visits to St. Joseph’s Orphanage, April 16, 1947
It was a freezing day in January 2016 when I passed through a long-locked door and first set foot into what had once been St. Joseph’s Orphanage. 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 children 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, above the lattice-panel doorway that led to the confessional, past the polished wood posts, past exposed brick and moldering mortar. A dark corridor ran the length of the building, as it did on each of the three other floors. Polished by generations of children, the floor still reflected a dull gleam. To one side opened a room of cupboards, their wooden shelves blanched with dust, the children’s numbers still clearly marked: 53, 19, 34…
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, on one side of the wooden grill, a young boy told a priest that another priest had touched him. The priest’s reaction to this story was angry and dismissive. Now, I knew, he was also an accused abuser. Here at this bench in a side room, children were pulled in from the corridor and deputized as godparents in quick baptismal ceremonies conducted over abandoned newborns. Here on this floor, a young girl had been forced to troop up and down the hallway, 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 assigned a clear purpose. 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 Sisters of Providence had probably been frightened of the attic, too. Even when they punished children there, they often went up in pairs. Except maybe for Sister James Mary, who had seemed so energized by rage and hatred and control. Here among the statues and old chests, she had strapped an unhappy teenage girl named Sally Dale into a chair and told her that the chair was electric and would fry her. I stood on the loft and looked around. I tried to conjure up Sally, to see her in the chair. I wanted to tell her that I knew what happened to her. She had not been forgotten. Her words had lived on. But all that was left were echoes and dust.
In the fall of 1994, Sally Dale of Middletown, Connecticut, received an invitation in the mail. A two-day reunion would be held at the Hampton Inn in Colchester, Vermont, for “survivors” of St. Joseph’s Orphanage, which struck Sally as an odd word to use. She hadn’t been in touch with anyone from the orphanage for a long time. She thought about the place as little as possible. But she was curious to see some of the old faces and find out who was still around.
Her husband Bob would drive. Bob had looked after Sally since they married and treated her son and daughter from her first marriage as if they were his own. Now that the children were grown, she didn’t have to worry about leaving them as she always had when they were young. She and Bob lived on the ground floor of a triplex, with her son, Rob, and his wife in an apartment above them. When Rob returned late from night shift at the prison, Sally always waited up. She left the front door open a crack and the light turned on. Only when she heard Rob call out, “Good night, Ma!” did she go to bed.
On Saturday, September 18, the first day of the reunion, Sally was only a few steps inside the hotel conference room when a man exclaimed, “You little devil!”
It was Roger Barber, who had been a boy at St. Joseph’s with his two sisters. Little devil, that’s what they used to call her. She hadn’t thought of it in so long.
“Sal, you look good for everything you went through,” one of Barber’s sisters said.
“You were our Shirley Temple of the orphanage!” said the other. She reminisced about the way Sally used to sing “God Bless America” and “On the Good Ship Lollipop” when she was little.
Sally remembered some of those things. She sometimes remembered bad things, too, such as times when the nuns hit her. But it was long ago. She recognized few of the fifty or sixty people in attendance. Debbie Hazen was there, and so was Katelin Hoffman, along with Coralyn Guidry and Sally Miller, but many of those women had lived at St. Joseph’s after Sally left. Some of the women recognized each other not by name but by the numbers that nuns used to identify them: Thirty-two! Fourteen!
The first day’s events began with Philip White, a tall, friendly looking man who explained that he was a lawyer. He introduced Joseph Barquin, who was a resident of the orphanage in the early 1950s, and some other people who were there to help. One 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.
Sally still remembered some of the little boys she had cared for in the orphanage nursery at that time, but if she had looked after Barquin, she didn’t recall. He stood up and told everyone about a nun taking him into a closet and doing terrible things to him. He still had scars. Roger Barber spoke next. He said that a nun told a group of older boys to rape him. As the morning went on, more of the former residents told their stories, and more of them became increasingly upset. Some began to melt down in the meeting room and the hotel’s hallways. One lanky, weathered man stood up and addressed another man before the whole crowd. He said he had come that day because back in the orphanage he bullied the man. He felt bad about it his whole life and wanted to say he was sorry. 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.
One woman said she’d watched a nun hold a baby by its ankles and swing its head against a table until it stopped crying. As Sally listened to the awful stories, something ruptured inside her. She shook her head and began to say, “No, no, no, no, no, it’s not true.” But it was too late. The spell was broken. Her memories of St. Joseph’s were already flooding back.
Though the reunion would go for two days, Sally could barely stay for one. She left that first afternoon with a crushing headache. Bob drove her home, and the next morning she had diarrhea and was unable to speak without heaving. She had spent that night sitting bolt upright, remembering things she hadn’t thought about for decades, saying, “No, no, no, no, no.” When Bob asked her why she was saying no, she just replied, “No.”
More than twenty years later, I met Sally’s son, Rob Dale, in another state, in a tavern at the busy intersection of two highways. The place was loud and a little louche. Rob slid into the large booth of paneled dark wood, placing an old, battered briefcase beside him.
Relief was my dominant emotion. It had taken two years to find Rob. He had worked as a correctional officer for twenty years, specializing in organized crime and intelligence. Now, he kept the details of his life out of the public domain. One of the first things he said to me was that he’d called a lawyer we both knew before he agreed to meet. He wanted to make sure I could be trusted. For all that, he had a lighthearted presence and an open, cheery face.
Rob had been worried that I would take his mother’s stories and write about her as if she were crazy. There had been times, he told me, when she told him things that made him think, That’s not sane. In the early 1990s, he started to think she might be going mad. She told him stories from her days at St. Joseph’s Orphanage, and he’d say, “Mom, that doesn’t sound right.” But Sally was adamant. “Bobby, that really happened,” she said. “I’m telling you the truth. This is what happened.”
Rob didn’t exactly disbelieve Sally, but he didn’t want to believe her stories either. He loved his mother and told me how strong she was. She barely reacted if she had a broken bone. It was a kind of strength, to be sure, but also the result of specific training.
“My mother wanted a family so badly,” Rob said. She was loving and always kind to children, welcoming neighborhood kids and baking them cookies. Sally had been odd about food herself. She was particular about her house, too. It was full of happy knickknacks, like small china animals, but everything was always exactly where it was supposed to be. When Rob used to tease her by taking one little item and putting it in another room, she’d notice within seconds of entering. There were other signs that Rob recognized only later. Every summer, Sally took him to a local pond and taught him how to swim. She told him that as a child she’d been thrown into Lake Champlain and told to swim or drown. He was so young himself when she told him that, he said, the extreme nature of the story didn’t register.
I told Rob that when she was very little, Sally was famous in her world for her singing voice. He laughed at the idea. “My mother loved Shirley Temple. She loved her to death! Oh my goodness.” Sally knew all the tunes from all the movies, Rob said. But she’d only hum them. She never sang.
After a few hours, Rob took the briefcase and put it on the table. Sally had given it to him before she died. It contained documents from her fight for justice and letters she had written in the 1990s about everything she saw at the orphanage. It included stories about children that Sally said had died or were even killed at the orphanage. My call had prompted Rob to read Sally’s letters for the first time. He found them painful and intensely moving.
I spent a long time looking for traces of Sally’s life and proof of the stories she told. In the previous few years, I walked through the cemetery she used to hide in. There at that spot, on that gray stone embedded in the soft green grass, that was where she sat. I crossed the black track where the old railway line used to be and wound my way down a steep slope to the shore of Lake Champlain. That was how she made her way to the water to swim. I tracked people all over the country who once knew her or were known by her, or who had once lived the kind of life she had lived. I hunted dates and times and events, and much more elusive, ways to test the veracity of the stories Sally told. Was this extraordinary story, this staggering claim, this insane assertion—was this kind of thing even possible? Did it happen? Could it ever have happened?
I found my way to Sally because for the previous five years I had been talking to people like her. They were mysterious, private, intense voyagers from another realm. Before that point in my life, I’d lived and traveled in different countries. I had a doctorate. I was a mother. I had worked for years as a journalist and thought of myself as a relatively worldly adult. I also believed that the world was a singular, knowable, real place.
Now I know that some people have always moved freely between the reality that is plain to see and its hinterlands: the institutions, the orphanages, the places where things happen behind closed doors and stay hidden.
It may come as no surprise that priests belong to this privileged caste of travelers to unseen worlds. They have themselves made such claims for thousands of years. Their promise has always been to lead us over a starry bridge that only they can see. But in fact, many have slipped unseen between the known world and unknown places, like orphanages, where they used their immense power to bend and twist and shape the reality of the children who lived there. If you grew up Catholic, you have almost certainly met a man who had such power.
I came across such a man when I was fourteen years old, though I didn’t know it until much later. My best friend, who I will call Lisa, asked if I wanted to go with her to a theater camp run by a priest, a close friend of Lisa’s family. The prospect was more exciting than I could express. Lisa and I attended a girls-only Catholic school run by nuns, and here was the promise of a whole weekend with a bunch of teenagers, actual boys, and initiation into the world of acting. I was afraid to admit that I wanted to learn how to act. It seemed to me that you had to think pretty highly of yourself to say something like that out loud. Nevertheless, I asked my parents if I could go, and fortune smiled upon me.
The camp was held at a rural property near Lancefield, Victoria, in Australia. It was owned by Father Glennon, a priest in his forties. Call me Michael! he said. He had thick blond hair, a gaunt face, and a constant patter. He picked me and Lisa up in his van, and her parents came out front to wave us goodbye. Lisa sat beside him in the favored front seat all the way to Lancefield. The property, Glennon explained, was for spiritual retreats. A house, which was more of a large hall, sat on a huge tract of bushland. It was a lonely, cold place not far from where scientists had discovered an ancient bed of giant bones in the 1970s. Titanic marsupials had lumbered through the landscape tens of thousands of years before. Were they still alive, they would have recognized the ancient, spooky gum trees around us. Inside the big hall was a huge room with a fireplace where the kids threw down their sleeping bags and talked into the small hours.
I don’t recall what time it was when Lisa and I, plus a cute boy with dark hair, found ourselves sitting with Michael Glennon in front of the fire. Glennon was delivering a friendly sermon, some kind of spiritual monologue that I normally would have paid obedient attention to, but I was distracted by the cute boy who was looking at me. Then Glennon said to all three of us that it was very beautiful when people loved each other, and that love was very special. He added something about trust and the free expression of love, and how it was a nice idea for the four of us to go into the next room, his bedroom, the only room there with a door that closed, and take off all our clothes. Being naked in front of each other, he said, was a good way to show that we trusted each other.
My presence at the theater camp that weekend had been pretty touch-and-go to begin with. My parents were not thrilled by the idea. I grew up in a Catholic suburb, went to Catholic school, and received the Holy Spirit via communion wafer every Sunday, and my parents had always been the most religious adults I knew. On one rare occasion when the local priest visited our home, I believe that even he had been taken aback by their reverence.
Much of this came from my father. He was raised by his grandparents, literally born in the middle of the nineteenth century, and his way of seeing the world had always leaned toward theirs. He was staunchly conservative, obedient unto the one true God, and often authoritarian with his children. He and my mother, as it turned out, had heard some odd things about Father Glennon and initially balked at the idea of letting me go. Eventually, in the face of my dramatic insistence, and the fact that Glennon was, after all, a priest, they allowed it.
There’s a cruel irony for parents who believe there is a kingdom of heaven and want to guarantee their child’s place in it, because there is great pressure to control what is ultimately out of their hands. It was a duty my father took seriously even though, inevitably, he would have to let go one day. But how could he know if this was the day?
There are no good answers for parents, but as it turned out, my father had prepared me for such a day. Life with Dad, as difficult as it sometimes was, had equipped me with tools that I didn’t know I had. I can’t explain this even now because I believe in a scientifically verifiable universe, but at that moment in front of the fire, when the priest asked me and my fourteen-year-old friend, the daughter of his close friends, to take off our clothes and prove we knew what trust was, my father—at that moment an hour away and fast asleep—took over my body. At least, that’s what it felt like. I heard him thunder the word No out of my mouth. And that was it.
Glennon looked shocked, and then he grew cold. The conversation took on a sour note. Shortly after that, his rap about the meaning of love and trust ended. I grabbed my sleeping bag and lay down by myself on one of the couches in the room full of buzzing, happy kids. The next morning, one of the cool, older girls mocked me because I had apparently crawled right inside my bag, pulled it up over my head and not moved for the next eight hours.
Glennon did not glance in my direction for the rest of the weekend. I tried once the following morning to get his attention, but he pointedly did not hear me. I could feel the kids around us cringing at my low status. Before acting camp ended, Glennon held a mass, and as his eyes swept over the crowd of admiring kids, they always bounced away from where I was. Looking back, I wonder at the effort of it. For him to so successfully not look at me, he must have been aware of where I was every second. At the time, though, I mostly felt confused and hurt. There was no mention of acting the whole weekend.
I learned later that Glennon had already been convicted for assaulting a ten-year-old girl before my time at the camp. Did Lisa’s parents know this? Had they not believed it? Did they suggest that Lisa take a friend with her? Was I their hedge, just in case?
In the three years after my visit to Lancefield, Glennon was charged with raping seven boys and one girl between the ages of twelve and sixteen, all of whom visited the camp in the years before I did. He went to jail, and yet more than ten years later after his release, he was brought up on twenty-four more counts, including the rape of a child under ten years old. He told at least one boy, after raping him, that if the boy told his parents what Glennon had done, Glennon would kill his parents and take custody of the boy. Another victim testified that Glennon said he had lost track of how many people he had raped.
Glennon was the subject of at least five trials and pleaded not guilty in all but one. He was convicted many times over. By his final conviction in 2003, now in his sixties, his hair still thick but his gaunt face turned spectral, he was sentenced for what would be the rest of his natural life. A reporter at that trial noted that when the guilty verdict was read out, Glennon shook his head in disbelief.
It was also reported after the legal proceedings that Glennon had regularly visited a boys’ orphanage called St. Augustine’s on the outskirts of a neighboring city. An immense building, half college, half chateau, it was run by the Christian Brothers and set on 620 acres of farmland that had been given to the religious order by the government. Glennon, it was said, provided counsel to the young residents.
When this was first reported, few would have understood what it likely meant, even in context of the grotesque details of Glennon’s trial. For much of the twentieth century, St. Augustine’s had been a satellite unto itself. Most of the thousands of boys who disappeared from rural hamlets and larger cities across the state had probably never heard of the place before they woke up one day inside it. Once inside, the boys may as well have been on the moon. Each morning they lined up to receive a dot of toothpaste on their toothbrushes. If they lost their toothbrush, they had to use their finger. When the bells rang, they lined up for their food, and to go to church, and to learn. On Saturdays, when they assembled to watch a film, the boys who were deemed undeserving were lined up in the same room but made to stand with their backs to the show.
The brothers who lived at St. Augustine’s, who allowed the child rapist Michael Glennon to come and go, wore tunics equipped with a special pouch that housed a strap, three strips of leather sewn together, eleven inches long and half an inch thick. One brother used to leap into the air, both feet off the ground, before he brought the strap back down onto the hand of a child. Another named his own strap “the red terror.” Each night the brothers prowled the halls, and boys rocked themselves from side to side to put themselves to sleep.
At different times over the decades, a canny, desperate, outraged child would escape from St. Augustine’s to tell people in the world outside what was happening to him. Survivors from the home have reported that dozens and dozens tried. But even if they managed to break free from this horrifying and altogether separate reality, they never got far. The runaway was always caught, and the police or his relatives or his local priest returned him. Then his head was shaved, and he was really punished.
If one of those boys had told Sally Dale of St. Joseph’s in Vermont, more than ten thousand miles away, what he had experienced, she would have been surprised to learn that the boy existed at all, but she would not have blinked at his story. The Australian children of St. Augustine’s in the antipodes had more in common with Sally and her fellow orphans in the far American north than any other child who lived free in their own neighborhoods or states, or even their country. Those boys and Sally were citizens of the same realm.
Ultimately, though, the boys never knew of Sally’s existence, nor she of theirs. But we can now say that they each understood something secret and profound about the difference between the world that most of us think we live in and the other worlds that only some people know.
For most of the twentieth century, an invisible archipelago stretched across the Western world. On each island in the chain stood a large, dark manor, some of red brick, some of stone. Most stood two to four stories tall, and all were utilitarian, though often graced by the statue of a saint or an architectural note, a pretty gable here, a cupola there. The hulking great buildings sat on the edge of their towns, high on a hill, by the river on the outskirts, or in the fields where few lived. They loomed large and solitary, and if the people in the nearby town thought of them at all, they thought of them as one-off institutions. Few understood that they belonged to an enormous, silent network. In fact, between St. Augustine’s in Victoria, Australia, and St. Joseph’s in Vermont, United States, existed thousands of other institutions like them: Smyllum Park orphanage in Lanarkshire, Scotland; the Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland; the Mount Providence Orphanage in Montreal, Canada.
Most institutions were religious, but many were not. All told, they composed the twentieth-century orphanage system, through which millions of children passed and from which relatively few records remain.
There are many reasons why the orphanage system, which was once so enormous, is now so obscure. All those reasons, diverse as they are, are strung between two poles: the active concealment of crime on one end and the impact of tremendous trauma on the other. The truth—a truth I struggled to accept for years—is that the cover-up of crimes was profuse, intentional, and effective. The destruction of evidence, the hiding of records, and the obscuring of facts and systems and prior warnings were all carried out by people who committed criminal acts or by their colleagues, who sought to protect them or the reputation of their church. The impact of the malefactors’ work is evident today and remains formidable.
The trauma inflicted by the orphanages is unique and particular, and not yet fully understood by modern psychology or psychiatry. Certainly, everywhere the islands of the orphanage archipelago existed, shattered travelers now live. These people were once marooned, but found a way home. Yet even as they escaped, a spell was cast upon them. Most of the survivors could not talk about what happened to them in that other place, or if they did talk about it, like the mythical seer Cassandra, no one believed them.
The orphanages left marks on the bodies of former residents, on their lifelong choices, on the way they raised their children, and on the geography of their adult lives. Some moved as far away as they could as soon as they could. Others stayed in the same town, but if you took a map and ran a pencil over their daily movements, you’d see that there was a particular street or a neighborhood that was never marked. If the town were, say, Burlington, Vermont, you’d find lines through the center of town, around the university campus, along the interstate, and down to the lakeshore, but stark against the messy scribble, you’d also see a clean wide space, and at the center of that space, you’d see a big building on a bluff overlooking the lake: St. Joseph’s Orphanage.
In the 1990s, the silence of survivors began to break everywhere.
- “A gripping chronicle of the ways in which those in power ignored, or even encouraged, the ill-treatment of children across borders, cultures, and decades.” —The New Yorker
- “Sometimes the world’s secrets have to wait for the right person to turn up to reveal them. Across ten years of hard and painful investigation, Christine Kenneally discovered, explored, and here reports on a great sink of human misery visited upon unprotected children by the very people who were honored for caring for them. It’s a chilling book, but a brave and important one—and a gripping read. It bears comparison to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago.”—Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and A Hole in the World
- “In the orphanages Kenneally investigates, sanctimonious, seemingly pious adults physically, emotionally, and sexually abused children, imagining that the children exposed to their shameful barbarism would forget the ‘morally upright’ adults’ horrific crimes. A cautionary tale about the long-term impact of adults’ cruelty to children—how perpetrators’ brutality, even when half-forgotten—nonetheless haunts victims with bodily pain, mysterious fears, and eventually, maybe, powerful understanding.”—Jessica Stern, senior fellow, Harvard School of Public Health
- “Kenneally has pulled off an astonishing feat in Ghosts of the Orphanage. She has produced a haunting, literary page-turner that is also a work of deep and urgent reportage. The reporting is tenacious and jaw dropping, but it is the characters who will stay with you long after the book is done.”—Jessica Garrison, author of The Devil’s Harvest
- “Kenneally… paints a beyond disturbing picture of human cruelty in this shocking exposé of decades of abuse of children housed in orphanages across multiple countries in much of the 20th century…This harrowing true crime story is essential, if deeply difficult, reading.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
- “A powerful work of sociological investigation and literary journalism.” —Kirkus Reviews
- “The history of orphanages in the 19th and 20th centuries is secretive, dark, and vast. …Kenneally handles each person’s story with great care and ensures that this time, the people who were failed by the system are heard… An important look into the dark past of orphanages globally. It’s also a deep dive into the ways these horrific stories were kept out of the public eye for so long.”—Library Journal, starred review
- “Even after Spotlight, even after Tuam, this book was a shock. Christine Kenneally's exposé of the abuse and torture of children in 20th-century orphanages fits neatly alongside those earlier stories of religious institutional child abuse. And yet, readers might find themselves emotionally unprepared…Kenneally is a diligent, patient reporter… But over 10 years of reporting, Kenneally chips away at the secrets, finding documentation and corroboration. The reportage in this book is impeccable. She never says more than she can prove, but she also never says less. The stories were true….’Ghosts of the Orphanage’ is a damning book, from start to finish.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
- “It is a measure of [Kenneally’s] nous as a journalist, as well as her patience and persistence, that she uncovered as much information and testimony as she has in what by all accounts is an extraordinarily difficult area to investigate." —Sydney Morning Herald
- “Kenneally—and the lawyers who fought the battles for these now-adult orphans—patiently and unflinchingly stitch together the brutal reality…As the criminal case builds, as the witnesses grow in number, and as the sharp diocesan attorneys start their attack, the story becomes a gripping nailbiter.”—Commonweal
- On Sale
- Mar 21, 2023
- Page Count
- 384 pages