In The Courts

Catholic Church Evades Sex Charges in South Dakota

Monday, April 11, 2011

Native Americans who attended Jesuit schools in the Northwest and Alaska just learned they will share in a $166.1 million settlement for offenses including childhood sexual abuse. But plaintiffs in South Dakota--nearly half of whom are women--face a legal barrier.

A South Dakota reservation church (rear) was part of a boarding school operation that's now accused of childhood sexual abuse.(WOMENSENEWS)--"When the nuns wanted you at night, they'd come get you from the dorm," recalled Mary Jane Wanna Drum, 64, who as a young child lived at one of South Dakota's several Catholic-run boarding schools for Native American children.

"My older sister would tell them I had an earache. 'Take me,' she'd say. It wasn't until this year, when my siblings and I began talking about all this, that I realized she protected me whenever she could. How do I thank her for that?" asked Drum.

The sexual abuse suffered by Drum and her seven brothers and sisters as grade-school students was both continual and depraved. In a phone interview, she recalled nuns, priests and lay employees subjecting both boys and girls to a barrage of violent assaults and bizarre molestations. Among many examples, the mother superior forced girls to simulate sex acts with a large doll before abusing them herself. Priests raped boys and girls, and the priest in charge also placed girls as "foster children" with single men.

Bookmark and Share

"Whoever paid," said Drum. "I don't know how any of us are alive today."

Students rarely received treatment for injuries, including those resulting from savage beatings or caused when children were sexually penetrated, said one of their attorneys, Rebecca Rhoades, of Manly and Stewart, a national firm headquartered in Newport Beach, Calif.

"We found no records of doctor visits at any of the boarding schools. This was all kept very quiet," Rhoades said.

Attendance at Drum's school, Tekakwitha Orphanage, was compulsory for the children of her tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, whose reservation straddles North and South Dakota. The youngsters were hardly orphans, but had been taken from their families as infants and young children.

"Our parents and grandparents weren't allowed on the property, so they'd sit across the road from sunrise to sunset--on blankets or on their cars--trying to get a glimpse of us," said Drum. "I used to cry at a window, hoping they'd see me."

Sexual Abuse Lawsuits Filed

Drum and her siblings have now filed childhood-sexual-abuse lawsuits against the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls and other Catholic Church entities that provided the orphanage's staff and supervision. (During the 1970s, most of the institutions were transferred to the tribes or closed down.)

Rhoades' law firm is part of a team that recently completed negotiations for a settlement with the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, on behalf of clients who were abused at the order's schools in the Northwest and Alaska. The result: about 400 Native people and 100 others will receive $166.1 million. In South Dakota, 77 plaintiffs have complaints in various stages concerning abuse at a half-dozen boarding schools. Some, like Drum's, are in an early phase while others have already been before judges, said Rhoades. On March 18, Drum was dismayed to learn that a South Dakota court had dismissed 18 plaintiffs' suits.

Nearly half the South Dakota plaintiffs are women, a much higher proportion of abused females than the Catholic Church claims is typical for its institutions as a whole. In 2002, dioceses nationwide self-reported that just 19 percent of molested children were girls. However, the church requested information only on priests and deacons, not on nuns, lay employees and others, which may have skewed the data.

"The church also takes sexual abuse of girls less seriously, so may not record it," said David G. Clohessy, director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "There isn't any good, independent data. From our experience as a support group, though, I'd say the South Dakota proportion is likely an accurate representation."

1 COMMENTS | Login or Sign Up to post comments


The World

B.C. Hitchhikers Left to 'Highway of Tears' Mercy


Native American Women Vets Seek Recognition

Domestic Violence

Gateways to Safety Scarce for Navajo Women

Thanks to womensenews for reporting this tragic story. My sympathies to those who suffered and are suffering. Good wishes that the legal cases will be successful.