Of all of the plaintiffs, Sally occupied a special place in his memory. I just loved her. She was really a special person. But whenever Sally or another orphan told Widman about witnessing a death, his silent reaction was that there were no bodies, no witnesses, and no proof of any kind. Even countries that have conducted official government inquiries into the terrible stories of the orphanage system have shied away from stories about children who died there.
The narrowed focus distinguished between tortures in a way that made little sense to the people who had experienced them, and it made the stories about deaths seem more like hallucinatory one-offs than inevitable outcomes in a world of dehumanizing brutality. Canada is perhaps the only country to have convened a special investigation into the thousands of Indigenous children who had gone to residential schools and never returned home. Kimberly Murray, an assistant deputy attorney general in Ontario who led the Missing Children Project, told me about former residents who recalled witnessing other children beaten to death or pushed from a window.
The stories I read of dead children at St. In addition to the boy thrown from a window and the other one pushed into the lake, there was a story about another boy tied to a tree and left to freeze, and a newborn smothered in a crib. The stories haunted me, but despite the many resonances with tales from different orphanages, I found some of them just too much to believe. She said there were holes in his face? And that he had been wearing a metal helmet?
The details were too awful, too bizarre. Surely there was at least an element of delusion at work. And if it could creep into that story, what other recollections might it have colored?
How could anyone ever nail down the facts? At the start of the litigation, the stories of dead children were already between 30 and 60 years old. As with any cold case, the more time that passes between a crime and its investigation, the more likely it is that evidence will get corrupted or lost, that details will blur, that witnesses will die. These cases presented additional challenges.
They depended on accounts that took years to emerge into public view. That lag is common among victims of trauma, from children who were abused by family members to soldiers who suffered a devastating event on the battlefield.
But at the time, psychology and neuroscience were only beginning to understand that delay; even now there remains tremendous cultural anxiety about the reliability of memories from the distant past, especially from childhood. Finally, understanding these deaths required stepping fully into an eerie otherworld that few people today even know existed.
Even when they were ubiquitous, orphanages were walled off from the rest of society. No one on the outside really knew what went on in them. Few really cared to. And she kept hitting me until finally I said okay, I did it, to stop the hitting. Then I watched it get white. It had been obvious to Widman from the beginning, and only more so as the stories of his witnesses started to knit together, that he needed to bring all the plaintiffs together in front of the same jury in a consolidated trial.
In isolation, any one account could be more easily picked apart and cast into doubt. The plaintiffs would be vulnerable outcasts going up against one of the most powerful institutions in the world. Together they had a chance.
Joining the cases was critical on a practical level, too. The plaintiffs would need to call on each other as witnesses, but if each case was tried separately, they would have to return to the court and tell each story perhaps a dozen times, in front of strangers, an experience that many of his clients would find unbearable. The expert witnesses would have to be summoned again and again, and the court would need to assemble different juries for each case.
The cost would be extraordinary. The defense fought hard against letting all the plaintiffs join their cases together for a consolidated trial. It argued that it could prejudice a jury to hear stories from such a long timespan. The letters would have been invaluable, practically a database of abuse and abusers. Widman was also unable to get the letters directly from White, for reasons neither lawyer can now recall. The defense argued that when the bishop had asked former orphans to share their stories with him, he had done so out of a sense of compassion, and that he had given them the settlement money out of concern for their well-being.
If by paying the money, the diocese had also bought itself protection from further legal action, well, that was just incidental. Long enough that no allegation, no matter how concrete, could ever be verified. There was simply no way to know any of it.
The facts were lost in the mists of time. It was a smart strategy. For the plaintiffs, it was also a cruel one. From their perspective, their long silence was not an accident; it had been forced on them, a direct result of the abuse they had suffered. How many times had the children learned the lesson that no one was interested in their pain? If you cry, you cry alone. How many times had they been punished for speaking up, leaving them to conclude that no one in power was interested in their problems? That their pain had no meaning inside or outside the orphanage walls?
Again and again, they learned that their firsthand observations were not valid. The nun told Sally she had a vivid imagination. It took years — decades — for these survivors of St.
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Still, the list of victims was growing, and so was the list of abusers. Multiple laymen were also accused of molestation and other abuse. Fred Adams, who worked at the orphanage in the s and sometimes wore a Boy Scout uniform, still haunted some of the boys of St. Adams told one boy he would one day go to battle for America and needed to be able to tolerate torture if captured. Adams trussed the boy up and hung him from the ceiling. Then he tied a string to his penis. As he pulled on the string, the boy swung back and forth and smacked repeatedly into a hot bulb that was hanging behind him.
Adams said, You can't say anything to jeopardize your fellow man… This is definitely going to happen to you. Vivid though these images were, Widman was nervous about how they would fare in the litigation. In sex abuse cases across the United States, defense lawyers had started to challenge recovered memories. Then in Bennington, Vermont, he deposed two siblings, a brother and sister, former residents of St.
The sister, a slight woman in her forties, spoke positively about her time in the orphanage. At some point, Widman told me, he mentioned the name of the nun who had sewn with the girls, and who was said to have sexually assaulted more than one of them. For one beat, no one moved. Then, Widman recalled, pandemonium broke out. The defense attorneys started yelling and screaming. What had Widman done? Had he given her money? Widman himself was frantic.
What are you talking about? The woman said that she remembered what the nun had done to everyone, and that she had done it to her too. She continued to serve as a witness — but for the plaintiffs.
It was happening in Canada too. In Montreal, less than miles north of Burlington, former residents of Catholic orphanages were now coming forward to say that as long ago as the s and as recently as , they had been subjected to the most extraordinary abuse. Just as with St. Widman went to Montreal to learn more. Duplessis observed that orphanages received only half the amount for each resident that hospitals and mental institutions received.
And they were pulled out of the orphanages where they had lived and moved into mental institutions. Often it was the defiant ones who were shipped off first. Some orphanages were simply rebranded as asylums, and untrained nuns were elevated to the status of psychiatric nurses — armed not just with their wooden paddles but with all the tools for treating mental illness in the s, including restraints and intravenous sedatives. Many killed themselves or struggled with addiction and other damage. But many of those who survived were ready for a fight.
Their struggles had been chronicled in a book, Les Enfants de Duplessis , by the sociologist Pauline Gill. They had filed more than criminal complaints against individual members of religious orders.
I asked one of the enfants , a woman named Alice Quinton, if she had seen any children die. She told me that one of her friends, an especially strong-willed girl named Evelyne Richard, died after being injected with the drug we now call Thorazine. Quinton especially remembered a little girl called Michelle, who was only about 4 years old, was said to have a brain tumor, and was often bruised and marked from beatings. Michelle cried all the time and was beaten all the time. A year after she arrived, one of the nuns discovered her body, stiff in the little straitjacket that she had been tied into.
Decades later, when Alice told her story to the police, they informed her that one of her tormentors had died at some point along the way.