THE NEW YORK TIMES
JANUARY 13, 1884
A CHILD’S TRUTH
Sources close to the investigation and hearing on the custody of the Russo orphans provided transcripts of some of the testimony taken in Judge Sutherland’s chambers. In particular the interview with Rosa, the eldest of the Russo children, provides background and context which has been otherwise missing from the public exchanges. A verbatim excerpt from the transcript of Mr. Falcone’s questioning of the orphan Rosa Russo follows.
Mr. Falcone: Miss Russo, please tell Judge Sutherland about your trip to Staten Island with your current guardians.
Rosa Russo: We went to find Vittorio, my baby brother. Mr. Lee drove us to the ferry, then we took a train and then a horse and carriage. But Vittorio was gone when we got there.
Mr. Falcone: The weather was very bad, isn’t that right? And you and your little sister were soaked to the skin and got colds.
Rosa Russo: What does that have to do with anything? We went to find Vittorio, because the bad priest took him and wouldn’t give him back.
Mr. Falcone: Miss Russo, Father McKinnawae dedicates his life to the care of orphaned children in danger. It is disrespectful to refer to him as anything but Father McKinnawae. Do you understand?
Rosa Russo: I understand that he took our brother and wouldn’t give him back.
Mr. Falcone: Did Father McKinnawae tell you that he had your brother in his care, that he had arranged an adoption?
Rosa Russo: People who do bad things don’t like to admit what they do.
Mr. Falcone: So I take that to mean that Father McKinnawae never told you he had placed your brother with an adoptive family.
Rosa Russo: You know what you need to do? You need to make him swear on the Bible and then ask him. Judge Sutherland could you please do that, make the priest swear on the Bible and then answer a question? Because his lawyer is asking me a question that only the bad priest himself can answer.
Judge Sutherland: Rosa, I see the logic of your suggestion, but for right now please answer Mr. Falcone’s questions to the best of your ability.
Rosa Russo: Yes sir. I will try.
Mr. Falcone: Now, once again. Did Father McKinnawae tell you that he placed your brother with a new family?
Rosa Russo: The bad priest never answers questions. He just asks them.
Mr. Falcone: Miss Russo, I understand that you are distraught but I will ask you to remember your manners. Let’s try this from a different direction. Why are you so sure that Father McKinnawae placed your brother with an adoptive family? Who told you this?
Rosa Russo: Nobody.
Mr. Falcone: But you must have got the idea from someplace. From someone. Was it Dr. Savard who told you this?
Rosa Russo: You can learn things without being told. You learn things by watching and listening. And reading.
Mr. Falcone: Is it possible that you overheard something about your brother Vittorio that you misunderstood, or was simply incorrect?
Rosa Russo: No. That is not possible.
Mr. Falcone: Are you familiar with the idea of ‘wishful thinking’ when you desire something so much, you imagine it to be true?
Rosa Russo: I’m supposed to be polite and respect you, but you want to trick me. It’s not fair that you try to get me to say something that will make Auntie Anna look bad when she did nothing but good things. When we came to Roses she didn’t send us away. She gave us a big bed to sleep in with warm covers, and good clothes, and lots to eat, and hot water and soap for baths and Auntie Quinlan who speaks Italian and Auntie Sophie who knows lots of stories and Auntie Margaret knows about corsets and manners and who taught me to read. And Mr. Lee and Mrs. Lee who feed us and teach us about gardens and who took us to church even when I didn’t want to go. All the bad priest did was take my brother and give him to a family and refuse to give him back to us. Make the bad priest swear on the Bible and ask him where Vittorio is, and see then who is good and who is bad. And also, that priest doesn’t like Uncle Jack because Nonna is Jewish and she is the best person in the world –
Mr. Falcone: Judge Sutherland –
Judge Sutherland: Let her finish.
Rosa Russo: Thank you. And he doesn’t like Auntie Anna because she thinks free* but most of all because she doesn’t obey him. He doesn’t like anybody who isn’t exactly like him and who doesn’t obey his rules. But I’m not like him and I don’t want to be like him. I just wanted my brother back, my baby brother who I was there when he was born and I gave mama sips of water and did what the levatrice — the midwife — said. And I promised mama when she was dying I would take care of my brothers and my sister, but the nuns lost my brothers, and all I wanted was to find them again. And now I don’t want to answer any more questions. Not until the bad priest answers some of my questions first.
Judge Sutherland: I think we’ll end the questioning for the day right here.
We at The New York Times read this transcript with great interest and some curiosity. Young Miss Russo raises a pertinent issue, and in fact records indicate that Father McKinnawae was questioned about the fate of the infant Vittorio Russo. When Mr. Belmont, attorney for the Mezzanotte-Savard family, asked whether or not the priest had any knowledge of the infant’s fate or whereabouts, Father McKinnawae declined to answer.
Editor’s Note: We believe that Miss Russo was referring to the fact that Dr. Savard is a proponent of Freethought, the philosophy espoused by Robert G. Ingersoll, “The Great Agnostic”.