For more than a hundred years, the people of Vermont had, knowingly or unknowingly, sent their children in reverent offering to the huge house on the hill outside of town. The obedient servants of the Catholic God took the children in, and in return, behind the locked doors of St. Joseph’s Orphanage, out of their own pain and misery, and with all their immense entitlement, they devoured them.
Some books stay with me because they were so well written. Others linger because they invited me into a world that I previously knew very little of, or their content haunts me. Then there are those that introduce me to people I’ll never forget.
This book was all of the above. I expect it to be one of my favourite non-fiction reads of the year.
Investigating some of the worst abuses of power I’ve ever read about, abuse that took place over the course of decades and throughout continents by seemingly countless perpetrators, this is not an easy read. Important, absolutely. Easy, not even close.
However, despite detailing abuses that run the gamut – verbal, emotional, physical, sexual, medical, neglect, torture, even murder – the descriptions are not as graphic as I had expected them to be. That’s not to say that there’s any doubt about the level of brutality these children survived (or didn’t, in some cases). The content is potentially triggering but it’s delivered as sensitively as possible.
The research that preceded this book was extensive, consisting of hundreds of interviews as well as … take a deep breath …
thousands of pages of transcripts from the St. Joseph’s litigation in the 1990s and files from Vermont Catholic Charities, which included contemporaneous logs from social workers at the orphanage, medical records, historic photographs, and letters written by priests and other workers in child welfare at the time, as well as handwritten diaries, police records, autopsy reports, transcripts from secret church tribunals, priest rehabilitation reports, orphanage settlement letters, historic newspaper articles, death and birth certificates, and government files and reports from many jurisdictions.
While the bulk of the book focuses on the atrocities that took place at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Vermont, you’ll also learn about other orphanages in America, Canada, Australia, Ireland and Scotland.
“I thought I was the reason all that stuff happened,” he told me. “All that time, I thought it was only happening to me, but it was happening all over the place.”Geoff Meyer
Sally Dale is integral to this book but hers is not the only story that will stay with you. I’m in awe of the courage, resilience and determination of the children I was introduced to, those who lived to become adults as well as those who didn’t.
As adults, many have fought for justice against one of the oldest institutions in the world. The pain of hearing their stories was well and truly offset by the privilege of getting to know these remarkable survivors.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough, but my recommendation comes with a word of warning: please take good care of yourself while you’re reading it. And make sure you have tissues on hand.
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.
Content warnings include death by suicide, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, forced labour, medical experimentation, mental health, murder, physical abuse, sexual assault and torture. Readers with emetophobia are really going to struggle.
Thank you so much to Hachette Australia for the opportunity to read this book.
Once Upon a Blurb
A shocking expose of the dark, secret history of Catholic orphanages – the violence, abuse, and even murder that took place within their walls – and a call to hold the powerful to account.
Ghosts of the Orphanage is the result of ten years of investigation by award-winning journalist Christine Kenneally. What she has uncovered is shocking, yet it was all hiding in plain sight.
Terrible things, abuse, both physical and psychological, and even deaths have happened in orphanages all over the world for many years. The survivors have been telling what happened to them for a long time, but no one has been listening. Authorities have too often been unwilling to accept their stories. And a victim’s options for recourse have been limited by the years it has taken many survivors to process their trauma, tell their stories, and pursue legal action.
Centering on St. Joseph’s, a Catholic orphanage in Vermont, Kenneally investigates and shares the stories of survivors. She has fought to expose the truth and hold the powerful – many of them Catholic priests and nuns – to account. And it is working. As these stories have come to light, the laws in Vermont have been forced to change, including the statute of limitations on prosecuting them.
Told with human compassion, novelistic detail and a powerful sense of purpose, Ghosts of the Orphanage is not only a gripping story but a reckoning. It is proof that real evil lurks at the edges of our society, and that, if we have the courage, we can bring it into the light and defeat it.