Are South Dakota Lawmakers Seeing the Light?

By Joelle Casteix
Worthy Adversary
January 26, 2012

How about a little good news: It looks like South Dakota lawmakers are working to undo a terrible wrong.

The South Dakota House of Representatives is considering a bill that will abolish the civil statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. If passed, the law will be in direct rebuttal to a 2010 law that SHORTENED the civil statute of limitations and was deliberately written to silence Native American victims of abuse.

Testimony is scheduled next week, and lawmakers will hear from dozens of South Dakota victims, many of whom were physically and sexually abused in Church-run "orphanages" for Native American kids. (I put the word "orphanages" in quotes because living at the schools was mandatory for children in many reservations across the state.) You can read more about some of the schools here. According to the church's own documents, abuse at the schools had been prevalent for decades.

Canada had similar institutions many run by the same religious orders as the schools in North Dakota but in response to the horrific abuses, the Canadian Government started a special government commission dedicated to the healing of Indian school victims, shining a light on the crimes that took place, and holding responsible parties accountable.

Not so much in South Dakota.

During the past five years, many of the victims at these schools in Yankton, Sisseton, Rosebud and other locations throughout the state came forward and filed child sex abuse lawsuits. They wanted like most victims of abuse to be able to expose what happened to them, hold the responsible parties who abused or knew about abuse accountable, and make sure that crimes like this never happen again.

The civil discovery process in these cases exposed tremendous cover-up by church officials. In fact, according to journalist Stephanie Woodard:

The lawsuits resulted in the disclosure of Church documents (now public court documents) that detail the abuse and describe transfers of predators, not all of whom are dead. After complaints about one brother surfaced in South Dakota, he was off to Washington, D.C., where he was convicted of sodomizing young boys there, his recent court testimony shows. Another priest who's still with us, Father Bruce MacArthur, was transferred out of South Dakota, only to embark on a multi-state, multi-parish spree of sexual assaults of children and the disabled, for which he was convicted and imprisoned in the 1970s and again in 2008.

But the church, seeing the writing on the wall, made sure that these men and women would never have the opportunity. In 2010, a former lawyer for the St. Joseph Indian School, which was the subject of many of the lawsuits, helped write legislation that actually SHORTENED the civil statute of limitations. The intended effect, according to legal scholar Marci Hamilton, was to "short-circuit any chance" these victims had for justice.

The bill passed into law before any victims advocacy organizations caught wind of the problem. Proponents claimed that the law was aimed to stop predatory lawyers from Florida and California from representing Native American victims.


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