Ghosts of the Orphanage by Christine Kenneally

Reviewed by Rod McLary

In this meticulously investigated exposé of the secret history of Catholic orphanages, Christine Kenneally lays bare the shameful and destructive actions of certain Catholic nuns and priests to the children in their care – and the consequent denials and obfuscations of the Catholic Church.

While the author focuses on St Joseph’s – a Catholic orphanage in Vermont in the United States – many of the clergy behaviours she uncovered are similar to those in the histories of orphanages in Australia.  The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – announced in 2012 with its final report released in 2017 – brought to the forefront of the minds of many Australians the extent of the shameful and abusive behaviour of some Catholic clergy towards vulnerable children.  It should be added though that the Commission’s inquiry extended far beyond the Catholic church and examined other churches as well as many secular groups.  But Christine Kenneally’s book focuses on the Catholic church and consequently so will this review.

The book begins as it means to continue with a chilling vignette of a young girl ‘swung [by a nun] by her back brace until she bounced off the walls’ [4].  To personalise the objective descriptions of the abuse suffered by the orphans, the author relates the story of Sally Dale who arrived at St Joseph’s Orphanage in 1940 when she was two years old.  With her were her three siblings from whom she was separated as soon as she arrived.  It is Sally’s story that acts as a connection between the various sections of the book – partly because she stayed in St Joseph’s for more than twenty years and partly because her story reflects the stories of so many of the other orphans.  Sally, as she grew older, began to believe that she would never leave even though she had wanted to.  The nuns repeatedly told her that St Joseph’s was her home.

In 1993, a man approached a lawyer and related his story to him.  It was a story of terror as he recounted his years in a ‘a dark and terrifying place run by … the Sisters of Providence’ [129].  The man spoke of ‘a girl whose head was smacked so hard into a heater, she went out like a light’; he spoke of ‘a little boy shaken into uncomprehending shock’; and of ‘other children beaten over and over’ [129].  The man – Joseph Barquin – spoke of his approaching the Catholic Diocese of Burlington from which he requested help with the cost of therapy and an apology; and was ignored.  Now he wanted to sue the church.  The lawyer – Philip White – had  devoted his career to ‘challenging and changing the prevailing wisdom about young victims of sexual abuse’ [130].

White’s untiring efforts to seek justice for Barquin and the others who came forward comprise the balance of the book.  His efforts exposed the denials and obfuscations made by senior clergy as the victims’ stories emerged.  Again White’s experiences and those of the victims who had come forward are similar to those of the lawyers and victims in Australia as they challenged the Catholic church.

It is generally accepted now that victims of sexual abuse can take many years to come forward and disclose their abuse – sometimes up to forty years.  Unfortunately, the delay between the abusive acts and their disclosure mitigate the credibility of the allegations.  Many of the perpetrators may have died; other orphans have very different memories of the orphanage; while all the way the Catholic church continues to stonewall any thought of justice for those abused.

But to compound the tragedy of child sexual abuse is the recent acknowledgement that a ‘significant number of nuns all over the world have been sexually assaulted by priests’ [310].  These crimes – they can be described in no other way – like the crimes against children were hidden by trauma and shame, and of course by the abusers themselves.  While this emerging information does not and cannot excuse the abuse, it does go some way to explain how it may have taken place.

The book is not just about what happened but it also addresses the forces which assisted in exposing the abuse.  The essential element is the courage of the victims whether it was a child who ran away and tried to tell someone [often being punished instead] or whether it was advocacy groups across the world.  Here it is worth acknowledging the author’s recognition of Australia’s CLAN and its founder Leonie Sheedy and its work in supporting victims.

Ghosts of the Orphanage concludes as it began with a vignette involving Sally Dale who – perhaps metaphorically after her long battle to expose the Catholic church – climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty and said ‘You could see everything’.

Christine Kenneally took more ten years to research and write this book.  In those ten years, she accessed thousands of pages of transcripts from the St Joseph’s litigation, files from Catholic charities, and diaries, police records, autopsy reports and hundreds of other documents.  The author’s painstaking research burns through every page whether quoting from transcripts or from the stories of the victims and their families.  Her sensitivity to those people who contributed to the book is unquestioned.  It is a book which demands to be read if for no other reason except as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana once said ‘those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’.  But it needs to be read for more than that.  It is an essential part of our history and the personal histories of every orphan and his/her family – and it is an acknowledgement of their suffering and struggle for justice.

The text is well supported by extensive Notes and a comprehensive Index.

Christine Kenneally is an award-winning Australian journalist and author who has written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, Slate and Time.  Her most recent book The Invisible History of the Human Race was a New York Times Notable Book of 2014, and was shortlisted for the Stella Prize and the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award.

Ghosts of the Orphanage


by Christine Kenneally


ISBN 978 073364 605 8

$34.99; 367pp


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