Sexual Abuse Alleged at Orphanage

By Jeff Martin
Argus Leader
August 6, 2010

Mary Jane Wanna Drum talks about her time at the Tekakwitha Orphanage as it is demolished last month in Sisseton. (Devin Wagner / Argus Leader)

Bricks rained down from a Sisseton orphanage last month, and Mary Jane Wanna Drum wanted to see the demolition because of the horrific abuse she and 23 others say happened there.

"We lived in that hell for over five years," said Wanna Drum, one of 24 people alleging widespread sexual abuse at the orphanage. They outlined the claims in a lawsuit filed July 30 in Minnehaha County Circuit Court.

Wanna Drum and other alleged victims were children at the Tekakwitha Orphanage for Native Americans. They maintain the abuse occurred in the 1940s through 1970s when they were as young as 4 years old.

The demolition of the orphanage - unrelated to the abuse allegations - was done with a federal grant to clean up the property, which is contaminated by mercury, petroleum and other pollutants, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said.

Defendants in the lawsuit include the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, which oversees church matters in eastern South Dakota; the Milwaukee-based Sisters of the Divine Savior, a group of nuns; and the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Washington, D.C.-based group of Catholic brothers and priests.

More than a dozen priests and nuns - some of whom are identified only by first names - also are named as defendants.

"Certainly our sisters are opposed to the sexual abuse of anyone, and they are praying for all involved in this case," said Kathie Daily, a spokeswoman for the Sisters of the Divine Savior. "Because we don't have a copy of the complaint, we cannot comment any further."

Jerry Klein, a spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, said: "For many years, the diocese has been publicly reaching out to anyone harmed by abuse. We certainly remain open to that, wanting to help where we can."

The 58-page complaint includes allegations of sexual abuse and beatings at the hands of nuns as well as priests.

Among the allegations:

# A nun at the orphanage kept a child-sized doll and forced a young girl to simulate sexual acts with it.

# Three nuns beat a girl with an iron shovel in the basement of the orphanage.# A nun forced a girl and another child to touch each other sexually while she watched. That nun also sexually abused the girl while saying the child "had the devil in her," the complaint states.

# A Catholic brother sexually abused a young boy in the child's dormitory, the playground and also drove with the child away from the property where more abuse took place.

# A nun abused one young boy who was 6 or 7 almost nightly when she bathed him.

The California law firm of Manly & Stewart, which is representing the plaintiffs, has filed other lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by Roman Catholic Church officials. Many of those cases involve priests, and the allegations against nuns in the Sisseton case make it unusual, said Rebecca Rhoades, a lawyer with the firm.

"We certainly have seen female perpetrators, but the severity of the abuse by the nuns in this case is particularly unusual," Rhoades said.

Though some of the priests are identified by name in the complaint, lawyers will have to determine the identities of some of the nuns who were known to the children by a first name. And many nuns from the era used names given to them by the church and not their real names, Rhoades said. Lawyers typically try to further identify alleged perpetrators in such cases by seeking records and interviews with church officials and others.

Last month, as Wanna Drum watched construction crews tear down the orphanage, one of the workers offered her a brick to keep as a souvenir.

"One of the environmental people comes up and says, 'We would like to know if you would like a brick?' " she said. "Why would we take evil home with us, why would we want to do that?"

No one has apologized to her, she said, and "nobody has admitted that this even went on. Nobody has admitted that it happened, no one in the church or anyone else has admitted that it happened.

"Nobody has ever listened to us, other than the attorneys we have now," she said. "They believe us. They believe what happened to us."

Jeff Martin can be reached at 331-2373.



Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.