“We Saw Nuns Kill Children,” the headline announces. The article in question is Buzzfeed’s most recent exposé on St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage in Burlington, Vt., from which a series of horrifying abuse allegations have recently emerged. The report interviews several former residents of St. Joseph’s, who tell of profound mental, physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their ecclesiastical caretakers. Some were thrown out of windows, others cut with sharp objects, more hung by the feet into laundry chutes. Several children either died as a result of negligence by the orphanage, or were, as the article states, “outright murdered” by the brutal nunnery. These accusations regarding St. Joseph’s come hot off the heels of earlier controversy in the upper echelons of the church, regarding prelate Theodore McCarrick and his resignation from the College of Cardinals in late July 2018, after dozens of sexual assault allegations against the former cardinal were documented in a memo by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò.
It is difficult to place the abuse at St. Joseph’s on any sort of meaningful scale; that is, there is no way to assess what impact, if any, the scandal will have on the Catholic Church. Precedent cases of ecclesiastical abuse (McCarrick’s, as well as the misconduct involving several members of the Archdiocese of Boston in 2005) had immediate social and financial impact on the diocese itself, but went largely unaddressed by top-ranking cardinals in the Vatican.
In addition, the temporal distance between the actual period of wrongdoing and the present (most of the abuse occurred during a period from the 1940s-1960s) will allow Catholic authority to largely sidestep responsibility for the misconduct allegations coming out of Burlington.
Speaking on a larger, more institutional scale, I believe it is of some importance to remember that the Church is steeped in traditional practices and is generally resistant to the moral, ethical and scientific developments of modern society. I believe it is worth looking into whether this behavior is a cause or effect of the conduct common within the Church; regardless, it means that fundamental alterations in ecclesiastical behavior occur over centuries if not millennia. St. Joseph’s simply joins the ranks of other Catholic orphanages accused of misconduct. In most lawsuits regarding this maltreatment, awards have been as slim as press coverage.
I do not expect that one or two or a dozen systemic abuse scandals will affect the global influence of the Church in any significant way. They will continue, as they have in the past, to ignore the glaring institutional issues present within the hierarchy, and we will have to accept that until Catholic morality overcomes Catholic shame.