Oprah "cleans house" in South Africa school abuse case

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Talk show host and media magnate Oprah Winfrey said on Monday she was “cleaning house” at her exclusive all-girl academy in South Africa after a dormitory matron was charged with abusing students.

Describing the charges -- including soliciting under-age girls to perform indecent acts -- as one of the most devastating experiences in her life, Winfrey said she had not renewed the head mistress’s contract and was taking other tough measures.

“We are removing the dorm parents, and as I have said to the girls, (we are) cleaning house from top to bottom,” she said in a video news conference from Chicago.

“It has shaken me to my core,” said Winfrey, who has herself told of suffering sexual abuse as a child and offered advice to other victims.

Former dormitory matron Virginia Mokgobo, 27, was arrested on Thursday on charges including assault, indecent assault and soliciting under-age girls to perform indecent acts.

She was freed on 3,000 rand ($458) bail on Monday after a brief court appearance and left the Sebokeng magistrate court, south of Johannesburg with a blanket over her head. The court postponed the case to December 13 to allow for more investigations.

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Superintendent Andre Neethling, head of the police’s child protection unit in Gauteng province, told reporters after the video conference that Mokgobo was charged with 13 counts of assault.

“There were at least three cases of serious indecent assault and these escalated for roughly four months.”

Winfrey, 53, a billionaire philanthropist, praised students who came forward to report the alleged abuse as exhibiting the kind of leadership qualities she hoped to foster in the school.

“My experience with child predators is that no one ever, ever abuses just one child,” said Winfrey, who is also a book critic and magazine publisher.

Winfrey’s $40 million academy has been dogged by controversy since it opened in January with a launch attended by singers Mariah Carey and Tina Turner, actor Sydney Poitier and filmmaker Spike Lee.

In March, some parents complained the school was too strict and its restrictions on visits, phone calls and email contact were comparable to rules in prisons.

Oprah Winfrey arrives to attend the 2007 CFDA Fashion Awards in New York June 4, 2007. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Then in May, some parents complained their children were not allowed junk food and, when they visited the school, they had to go through a security gate.

The abuse charges have assumed a high profile in South Africa, where activists accuse the government of neglecting often overcrowded and inadequately funded public schools lacking such basic items as textbooks.

High levels of classroom violence, teenage pregnancy and drug abuse exacerbate the poor standard of education, which still suffers from inequalities left by apartheid.

Winfrey said she cried for half an hour after hearing of the abuse allegations and had done her best to protect the students.

“Knowing what I know now the screening process was inadequate even though I was not directly responsible for recruiting dorm parents,” she told a room packed with journalists listening to the video conference.

“No, I don’t think as a school we have failed the girls. I feel there are systems within the school that failed the girls. I don’t feel that it has harmed my personal reputation because I have done nothing wrong.”