Reviews for Ghosts of the orphanage : a story of mysterious deaths, a conspiracy of silence, and a search for justice

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A continent-ranging account of the terrors of a system of warehousing unwanted children. According to a sobering study in Australia in the early 2000s, writes Kenneally, “the residents of orphanages were overwhelmingly not orphans.” As the author shows, this is a global problem. Though the orphanage system has largely given way to foster care and adoption, to say nothing of imprisonment, for generations, countless children were condemned to orphanages because their parents did not want them or could not care for them. Forgotten there, the children were subject to sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priests, nuns, wardens, and staff members; in numerous instances, they wound up dead at those same hands or, in some instances, murdered by fellow wards. Kenneally examines orphanages in Australia, the U.S., and Canada and delivers a distressing amount of somber news. For example, many “survivors,” as they often call themselves, wind up dying young from drug or alcohol abuse or suicide. By the author’s account, those who died within the system were overwhelmingly Indigenous or Aboriginal children far out of proportion to their numbers. “Many children who died were not named by the schools, nor was their date of death noted, and for almost half of the children, the cause of death was not recorded,” she writes. In one school, Kenneally recounts, 6 of 8 chaplains in charge had been accused of sexual abuse, while one now-elderly nun, with only a touch of remorse, admitted, “We had permission to kick the children.” When these stories first came to light in the 1990s, notes the author, they were too often dismissed as fabrications, but now, says one reporter, “Finally in 2022…people are willing to hear these stories and believe them.” Kenneally makes a strong case for prosecuting still-living monsters and providing reparations for their still-living victims. A powerful work of sociological investigation and literary journalism. Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Library Journal
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The history of orphanages in the 19th and 20th centuries is secretive, dark, and vast. This thorough account focuses on St. Joseph's in Vermont, but it also looks at orphanages around the world. Residents of these orphanages recount the physical and sexual abuse they received at the hands of the nuns and clergymen who ran the organizations. They also recall stories of the possible murder of several children in these orphanages. Decades of cover-ups, however, kept these allegations quietly under wraps. In the '90s, victims began to come together to share their stories in an effort to get justice. Kenneally (The Invisible History of the Human Race), who spent 10 years investigating the case to get at the truth, provides firsthand accounts, transcripts of court depositions, and many other official records to detail the children's trauma, which is clearly not used for shock value. Kenneally handles each person's story with great care and ensures that this time, the people who were failed by the system are heard. VERDICT 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.—Carleigh Obrochta

Publishers Weekly
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Journalist Kenneally (The Invisible History of the Human Race) paints a beyond disturbing picture of human cruelty in this shocking exposť of decades of abuse of children housed in orphanages across multiple countries in much of the 20th century. In thousands of institutions in the U.S., Canada, England, Ireland, Australia, and other countries, as documented by official inquiries and corroborated by Kenneally’s research, children were routinely emotionally abused, beaten for falling asleep during punitive nighttime exercises, whipped, submerged in baths, raped, and even killed. Those crimes were routinely concealed by their perpetrators or their colleagues, “who sought to protect them or the reputation of their” institution, most of which were religious. Kenneally shares the stories of such individuals as Sally Dale, who, while at Vermont’s St. Joseph’s Orphanage as a child in 1944, “witnessed a nun throw a boy through an upper-floor window to his death,” and was herself “thrown into Lake Champlain and told to swim or drown” around the same time. Kenneally asserts that her exposť pertains “to acts that are happening right now,” and that the grim reality is a product of an insufficient reckoning, since “organizations that ran orphanages still deny the full reality of what happened inside them, still refuse to take true responsibility for the consequences, and still sit on the records.” This harrowing true crime story is essential, if deeply difficult, reading. Agent: Jay Mandel, WME. (Mar.)