Former Orphanage Residents Decry Sd Abuse Law

By Dirk Lammers
Daily Republic
September 29, 2010

Several adults who say they were physically and sexually assaulted decades ago at an American Indian orphanage spoke out Wednesday against a new South Dakota law aimed at shielding churches and schools from dated sexual abuse claims.

The former residents of the Tekakwitha Orphanage appeared together during a news conference in front of the Catholic cathedral in Sioux Falls. The orphanage, now closed, was in Sisseton, about 150 miles north.

Six former former orphanage residents who spoke said they want to see repeal of a law that took effect July 1. It prohibits anybody 40 or older from recovering sexual abuse damages against any organization or person except the person who committed the act.

Bill LaCroix, 75, who says he was sexually and physically abused for years by priests and nuns, contends the law further burdens victim who endured the trauma of abuse.

"I think that is very unfair to people who have gone through the same ordeal," he said.

Gov. Mike Rounds, who signed the bill into law in March, said there should be a statute of limitations for these type of cases, just as there is with other crimes and civil proceedings.

"This does not limit the ability to go after those who actually caused the abuse," Rounds said Wednesday in a written statement. "This only makes it clear that employers who might have a difficult time defending themselves years after the incidents occurred, in terms of gathering information and finding witnesses, have some certainty."

Two dozen former Tekakwitha residents sued the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls and several other parties in late July, alleging sexual and physical abuse by priests and nuns decades ago.

Some of the victims, who are identified only by their initials, were as young as 4 years old during the alleged assaults at the orphanage between the 1940s and 1970s. They say priests and nuns fondled both males and females, and there is at least one allegation that a nun forced children to simulate sex acts with a doll.

Pat Wanna, 60, said she and her seven siblings were also physically abused at the school.

"We weren't spanked on the butt, we were beat," said Wanna, of St. Paul, Minn. "We were beat. We were brutally beat."

A call to Jerry Klein, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, was not immediately returned Wednesday. After the lawsuit was filed, Klein said the diocese had reached out to alleged abuse victims for years and wants to help where it can.

Joelle Casteix, western regional director of the California-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said lawsuit limits placed on childhood sexual abuse victims are unfair as it often takes many years for adults to come forward because of the guilt and shame.

A co-sponsor of the South Dakota bill, state Rep. Tom Deadrick, R-Platte, said he supported the measure because a constituent brought it forward and it looked like a topic that should be discussed.

Deadrick said none of the people who could have personally been affected by the bill showed up at any hearing.

"I'd have preferred that some psychologist or some psychiatrist would have shown up that had expertise in this area, but nobody did," Deadrick said. "So we did the best with what we had available."

The constituent who prompted the bill was Chamberlain attorney Steve Smith, who has represented St. Joseph Indian School in some abuse cases.

Smith said he had been seeing ads soliciting potential abuse victims placed by California law firms that were just looking to make a buck.

"The people who complain, they're mostly people who are sponsored by and financed by certain law firms out of California who have made a larger-than-life living off of suing the Catholic Church," Smith said.

Casteix said the South Dakota bill was pushed through quietly, and opponents who represent victims had no chance to testify against it.

Deadrick and Smith said the bill was vetted by committee and debated on the floor, giving opponents plenty of opportunity to come forward.

"It's as publicized as we can publicize things," Deadrick said. "All the proper notices were given."

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