Tim Giago: Church abuse must not go unpunished

Writing about lawsuits can be like going to the dentist; it can be numbing and very painful. With that I will try to be as brief (no pun intended) as possible.

Two lawsuits involving the physical, mental and sexual abuse of Indian children while living and studying at Indian mission boarding schools will be heard by the South Dakota Supreme Court to determine if the suits should be dismissed because they have exceeded the statute of limitations.

Attorney Greg Yates of Rapid City, SD is representing the plaintiffs. Yates also has a law office in California, and he is a graduate of the University of South Dakota School of Law. He believes that some of the local news coverage has been inadequate and slanted toward the defendants.

The St. Francis lawsuit (Lloyd One Star and Marian Sorace) was filed in Rapid City and seeks damages against the Catholic Diocese of Rapid City; the Wisconsin Province of the Society of Jesus; and the Denver-based Sisters of St. Francis.

The St. Paul's suit (Zephier and Cuny) was filed in Sioux Falls and seeks damages from the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls; Blue Cloud Abbey; Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, based in Pennsylvania; and the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament of Marty.

I have read the suit filed by the plaintiffs and the charges are descriptive and they explicitly describe the acts of violence and sexual abuse performed upon the children. The children are now adults and many years have lapsed since the alleged acts of sexual abuse by the priests and nuns.

The Indian mission boarding schools were often located far from the homes of the children and they were brought there as boarders. They lived at the schools nine months out of the year under the protection of the prefects, nuns, brothers and priests.

These were innocent children and many of them were barely able to speak English. It was their first experience at being away from home. They were entering an institution where they would be under the total control of the Catholic Church.

Having spent 10 years of my life at an Indian mission boarding school, I can readily attest to the physical, mental and sexual abuse of the children at the school I attended. I wrote about it in my book, "Children Left Behind."

These children were being indoctrinated into the rituals and beliefs of the Catholic Church. It was not out of the question for the abusers to warn the children that if they spoke about what happened to them that they would be committing a mortal sin and they would burn in hell. At most Catholic boarding schools the children were required to go to confession at least once per week. Can you imagine their fear when they looked through the confessional screen and saw the face of the priest that had been abusing them? What were they to think? Don't you know that they were already suffering from the guilt pushed upon them by their abusers? When they saw the face of that priest behind the confessional screen they knew that they had no one and nowhere they could turn to for help. They buried what happened to them deep inside.

Most Indian children are naturally very shy. And now they find themselves in a strange environment, far from home, and under the control of white people. Many of them had never been around white people. These people were not only strangers to them, but also strangers of a different race. Having heard the horror stories from their grandparents about the massacre at Wounded Knee, they were terrified of the white people. Having never witnessed or experienced corporal punishment at home because it was not the Indian way, it was a terrible shock for them to see a fellow student beaten with a leather strap. It reinforced the truth of the stories they had heard about whites before coming to the mission.

I have witnessed the frightening revelation of hidden thoughts and fears whenever I speak to a group of elderly Indians about the boarding school experience. Nearly every time I speak I can see the tears flowing down the faces of the elderly men and women. They remember. They recall the things they have kept hidden deep inside for many years.

Not long ago when I spoke at the Pueblo Cultural Indian Center in Albuquerque, an elderly Jicarilla Apache man, pulled himself up by his cane and said, "Mr. Giago, I have something to say about the mission boarding school I attended," and then he stopped, he tried to continue, but he could not. He broke down and cried.

Children abused by Catholic priests from Boston to Los Angeles have had their day in court and have been awarded restitution although no amount of money can ever heal the pain they have suffered. The Indian children should not be denied justice.

I believe that the South Dakota Supreme Court should not dismiss these cases because of the statute of limitations, but it should allow the jury to hear the cases and let them decide when it was that these terrible memories came back to these abused children of the Indian mission boarding schools. The pedophiles at the mission schools must not go unpunished.

Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991 and founder of The Lakota Times and Indian Country Today newspapers. He founded and was the first president of the Native American Journalists Association. He can be reached at najournalist@msn.com.

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