Silence of Catholic Church on Lakota child sexual abuse cases Part 2 of 3

Native Sun [Rapid City, SD]

July 1, 2022

By Wasuta Waste Win

In continuing the coverage on the harmful legacy of Catholic schools on South Dakota Indian reservations, a closer look at more recent (in the new millennium) cases brought against two of the educational institutions, St. Francis and Holy Rosary (Red Cloud Indian School) Mission both currently operating on the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Indian Reservations, makes imperative a thorough reevaluation of the role of parochial schools on Native American land.

A more recent ruling on June 25, 2008, the Supreme Court of South Dakota ruled in the case One Star v. St. Francis Mission (2008 SD 55, 752 N.W.2d 668), where Lloyd One Star and Marian Sorace brought suit against the Catholic Church.  One entity, Sisters of St. Francis established in 1939 and located in Denver, Colorado was involved.

In 1886, the sisters (nuns) helped establish St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Reservation and in 1888, the same order helped establish Holy Rosary Mission (Red Cloud Indian School) on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

One Star attended the S. Francis Mission School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation from 1963 to 1970. Sorace, One Star’s older sister attended the school from 1960 until 1971. Both siblings alleged that during this time they were subjected to sexual, physical and emotional abuse by priests, brothers (Jesuits), and sisters (nuns) who operated or worked at the school. Sorace suffered from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the plaintiffs, the case decided in 2008 began in 2001 when One Star responded to an advertisement in a newspaper seeking information on abuse suffered by former boarding school students at St. Francis Mission.

In 2001 One Star wrote, “I am a 44 year old man, and the boarding school experiences have been locked up inside me all these years. I know that what was done to me there affected me in a bad way during my whole life, especially in my relationship with my family members, then with my own sons, my wife, my general outlook in life, my relationship with Tunkasila, my self-esteem, and the self-medicating during the years when only excessive use of alcohol eased the pain and inner turmoil.”

One Star explained the alleged acts of physical and sexual abuse, he and other students at the school suffered. He also identified the alleged perpetrators of the abuse. His letter concluded by acknowledging the effects of the abuse: “I am a Lakota man. Three years ago, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe had the bringing out ceremony, in which the chief’s bonnet, which I inherited from my ancestors, was placed on my head. This is a big responsibility, and I can see how the long term effects of the sexual and physical abuse I endured in the early years of my life, and which I have described to you in this account, still have their effects on me personally, and on my interaction with the people. I’m glad about what you’re doing, and I want to support you. You have my story now.”

The Sisters (nuns) responded by saying that One Star and Sorace’s depositions showed that each of them was aware of the causal relationship between the abuse and its effect on them for more than three years before they filed the lawsuit.  The court agreed with the Sisters (nuns).

One Star’s response to the newspaper advertisement in May of 2001 was judged by the court as “[One Star} being on inquiry notice of the causal connection between the acts of abuse at the St. Francis Mission School and his current condition. Armed with this knowledge…One Star had a three-year period in which to commence a lawsuit against the Sisters (nuns). His failure to commence suit within that time period renders summary judgement appropriate”.

The court did agree with One Star and Sorace that under the statute “discovery of the injuries alone is not sufficient to start the running of the statute. Rather, there must also be discovery of some tie linking the acts of abuse to an injury; i.e. “that the injury or condition was caused by the act”. The court found that One Star and Sorace failed to “commence this action within three years of their discovery of the abuse and their injuries.

A psychologist involved in the case explained “the self-concealing nature of childhood sexual abuse” saying, “[t]he memories and understanding of the effects of trauma are, therefore not otherwise fully understood, appreciated, or, in some instances remembered by the victim.”

He added, “Many children only realize years later the true significance of the abuse they endured, especially in cases where the molestation occurred at the hands of family members or other trusted individuals. For some children, sexual violation is so traumatic it becomes psychologically self-concealing, if only to preserve sanity.” Both One Star and Sorace contended that they put their trust in the Sisters (nuns) while attending St. Francis School.

They contended that in Zephier v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls (2008 S.D. 56, 752 N.W.2d 658), “the United States’ management and control of Indian boarding schools” was in question and in Zephier v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls claims asserted involved “allegations of breach of treaty and breach of trust by the U.S.” In deciding the case, the court declined “to adopt the plaintiff’s theory of cross-jurisdictional tolling (delaying) during the Zephier class action litigation”.

Zephier v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls (2008 S.D. 56, 752 N.W.2d 658) and Bernie v. Blue Cloud Abbey (2012 S.D. 64, 821 N.W.2d 224) are important as background cases.

In Zephier v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, decided on June 25, 2008, seventy-two (72) former students of St. Paul’s School located in Marty, South Dakota on the Yankton Sioux Reservation brought suit against the following:  the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls who operated the school, the Blue Cloud Abbey, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who provided teachers and staff.

In Zephier v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, 752 N.W.2d 658 (S.D. 2008), the former students claimed these entities were responsible for mental, physical, and sexual abuse during the periods of 1947 to 1954 and 1958 to 1973.

In Zephier v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, Associate Justice Steven Lee Zinter issued (see Part 1 in 6/15-6/21/2022 issue) the opinion on the case.  As noted prior, Zinter had not taken the South Dakota bar exam but was admitted to the South Dakota bar under the state’s diploma privilege in the 1970’s. Today the South Dakota bar exam requires knowledge of Federal Indian Law including the Indian Child Welfare Act.

In Zephier v. Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, the Circuit court had granted a summary judgment in favor of the Catholic entities by concluding that a statue of limitations barred the claims. Ten of the seventy-two former students tried to amend the complaint to show a timely filing which the circuit court denied the motion to amend.

In Bernie v. Blue Cloud Abbey, 2012 S.D. 64 (S.D. 2012), former students who attended St. Paul’s School located in Marty, South Dakota, alleged that they were sexually abused while attending the school.  The Catholic Church was alleged to have owned, operated, or controlled the school when the abuse occurred more than 35 years prior. Associate Justice Steven Lee Zinter issued (see Part 1 in 6/15-6/21/2022 issue) the opinion on the case. The court determined that the lawsuits were filed more than 25 years after the applicable statute of limitations expired.