By Stephanie Woodard
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.
In dismissing the 18 cases, the South Dakota judge applied a 2010 state law that limits victims' ability to bring childhood-sexual-abuse lawsuits after age 40. Since almost all Native American boarding-school survivors are older than that, another of their attorneys, Gregory A. Yates of Rapid City, S.D., and Los Angeles, has charged that both the law and the unusual retroactive ruling (applying a new statute to pre-existing cases) target this group. On that basis, Yates asked the court to reconsider its decision, but on April 1 the judge refused to do so. The Sioux Falls diocese did not return calls requesting a comment.
Attorney Steven Smith, of Chamberlain, S.D., wrote the 2010 law, which was sponsored by his local representative as a "constituent bill." He testified to the legislature that overaggressive plaintiffs' lawyers were driving the Native American complaints and that the Catholic Church had difficulty responding to them because the alleged activities occurred so long ago.
Smith, whose client, Congregation of Priests of the Sacred Heart, is the defendant in about a dozen pending cases for sexual abuse that allegedly occurred at St. Joseph's Indian School, also in Chamberlain, told Women's eNews that under the old law, "plaintiffs were entitled to their day in court and that's a hard one to defend." He added that plaintiffs were "trying to grab the brass ring, seeing others grab the brass ring, thinking it's your ticket out of squalor."
"You bet the South Dakota legislation was designed to keep Native American lawsuits out of the courts," said Joelle Casteix, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests' western regional director. "The Church has a hard time defending itself because it has the proof. It keeps a paper trail on sexual-abuse complaints." These documents are inevitably damaging when they are revealed during litigation, she said.
But the plaintiffs' legal efforts continue, according to attorney John C. Manly, of Manly and Stewart. "We will appeal the decision to the South Dakota Supreme Court. We will pursue every remedy," he said.
Drum and other plaintiffs have also not given up. "The truth never changes," she said, "and the truth will come out."
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Stephanie Woodard writes on human rights, food and agriculture for magazines and for her blog at www.huffingtonpost.com/stephanie-woodard/.
"Soul Wound: The Legacy of Native American Schools," Amnesty International USA:
"Native Americans in South Dakota: An Erosion of Confidence in the Justice System," South Dakota Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights:
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