Native American survivors of alleged boarding school sex abuse want justice
The United States in May acknowledged the damage inflicted on generations of children at federal Indian boarding schools, a system built to assimilate indigenous kids into white society by cutting them off from their parents and tribes.
Geraldine Charbonneau Dubourt, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, welcomed that admission, part of a report released by the Department of the Interior . But what she really wants is justice.
The septuagenarian has waged a so-far fruitless effort to seek restitution for the rapes and other abuses she says she, her eight sisters and scores of other Native American children endured for years at the former St. Paul's Indian Mission School in Marty, South Dakota.
A 2010 state law barred victims of alleged sexual abuse aged 40 or older from filing civil lawsuits against any institution that knew or should have known about it. That legislation, which amended an earlier state law on sexual abuse, effectively shortened the statute of limitations for victims to seek damages. It was aimed largely at protecting the Catholic Church, whose priests and nuns ran St. Paul's and at least four similar schools in South Dakota - a motive acknowledged by the attorney who crafted the amendment.
Dubourt and other Native Americans want the legislation overturned. They say it penalizes sexual abuse survivors for enduring trauma that often renders them unable to speak out until late in life. For more than a decade, they have held rallies in the capital of Pierre and purchased billboard ads aimed at shaming South Dakota lawmakers into action, to no avail.
At the center of the battle is the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, whose jurisdiction includes the eastern half of South Dakota, where the old St. Paul's boarding school is located. The diocese has apologized publicly for child sexual abuses it said were committed by some of its priests decades ago. But it has been largely silent on allegations lodged by Native Americans who attended St. Paul's: At least 108 former students have sued the diocese since 2003.
The diocese for years has contended in court proceedings that it's not responsible for any alleged harm done there because it didn't operate the school or have direct oversight of the priests and nuns who staffed it.
It's an argument that has found favor with South Dakota's Supreme Court. Plaintiffs' attorneys and advocates, however, say it's a common legal tactic embraced by Catholic authorities to avoid accountability for allegedly criminal actions of its priests and nuns.
"Bishops and archbishops have ultimate authority over who operates in their jurisdiction," said Zach Hiner, the executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which claims 25,000 members worldwide. "All this is a diffusion of responsibility to protect the diocese."
Time is running out for Dubourt and her elderly sisters, known across Indian Country as the 9 Little Girls. Three of the siblings have died in the past year. Those still living are in their 70s and 80s. Dubourt no longer lives in South Dakota full time, spending part of the year in Pennsylvania, where her daughters live.
South Dakota legislators are "waiting for the rest of us to die," Dubourt, 73, says matter-of-factly. She vows to keep fighting.
‘STEPPING OVER THE BOUNDARIES’
Dubourt last year traveled by car with a Reuters reporter to provide a glimpse of her past at St. Paul's, which she attended from 1955 to 1967.
She said the abuse began as inappropriate touching by priests and nuns shortly after she arrived as a six-year-old, then escalated. As the SUV descended into a verdant valley of corn and bean fields a towering white steeple came into view. Dubourt's face tightened.
"It's the first damn thing you can see - look at it!" she said.
The steeple is part of the Church of St. Paul Apostle of the Nations, situated on the Yankton Indian Reservation. Local residents refer to it simply as St. Paul's Catholic Church. Services are still held there. But adjacent buildings belonging to what was once the Catholic boarding school, founded in the early 1920s, are weathered and rotting.
It was in the church basement that Dubourt says she was raped multiple times at age 16 by a priest and forced to undergo an abortion, according to her deposition for a 2008 civil suit seeking damages. She and her sisters sued four priests, six nuns and two school workers - all now deceased - whom they alleged took part in the abuse. Also named as defendants were the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls and three religious groups whose nuns and priests staffed the school.
The diocese and the religious organizations - Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and Blue Cloud Abbey - all denied wrongdoing in court filings. Blue Cloud Abbey was a former Benedictine monastery in South Dakota that organized a nonprofit entity to take over operation of the boarding school from another Catholic group in the 1950s, court documents and state incorporation records show.
To establish that the diocese had some authority over the school, the sisters' lawyers filed hundreds of pages of internal documents from the 1940s to 1960s related to the institution. They included records showing that St. Paul's provided the diocese with an annual count of its students and teachers and information about its finances. There was also correspondence from the Oblate Sisters order to then-Bishop Lambert Hoch, now deceased, reporting on the comportment of nuns at the school and seeking his assistance with personnel matters.
Lawyers for the diocese said the Sioux Falls bishop had little say in how the school was run. They introduced written testimony from an expert witness on canon law who said bishops have limited authority over religious orders operating within their dioceses and no power to supervise or oversee their ministerial work. Therefore "the Bishop of Sioux Falls did not have canonical oversight authority or responsibility regarding any abuse of whatever kind occurring at St. Paul's Indian School at Marty, South Dakota," the testimony said.
That interpretation is a misreading of canon law that has nevertheless been used repeatedly by Catholic authorities in an attempt to evade liability for alleged sex crimes committed by priests and nuns in their jurisdictions, according to Tom Doyle, an inactive Dominican priest and canon lawyer who has provided expert testimony in abuse lawsuits. "According to canon law, the bishop is the king of the diocese and he has authority and responsibility for everything that happens in that diocese," Doyle said.
The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament order declined to comment.
In an interview with Reuters, Sister Miriam Shindelar, a nun with the Oblate Sisters and a former teacher at the boarding school, denied knowledge of any sexual abuses committed against St. Paul's students.
Blue Cloud Abbey closed in 2012, but Reuters spoke with its former abbot, Thomas Hillenbrand.
Among the evidence presented by the Charbonneau siblings' attorneys was a letter written by Hillenbrand to another former student named Anita Honke (née Markley) and her husband Richard. In that letter, dated April 19, 2003, Hillenbrand apologized to Honke for harm allegedly done to her as a child by "Fr. Francis," a priest from Blue Cloud Abbey who had taught at the boarding school. That clergyman, whose full name was Francis Suttmiller, was claimed by locals to have "abused young girls at the mission. God only knows how many," the abbot wrote.
Suttmiller, who died in 1996, was one of the priests named individually in the suit filed by Dubourt and her sisters.
Reuters is the first to report on this letter, which Dubourt's attorneys obtained from a separate 2005 civil lawsuit filed by yet another former student claiming sexual abuse at the boarding school.
In a phone interview with Reuters, Hillenbrand confirmed that he wrote the letter. He said he did so after the Sioux Falls diocese alerted him that Honke had contacted the diocese about her alleged abuse at the school by Suttmiller, who had been under the abbot's charge.
Now 83 and living at a priory in Nebraska, Hillenbrand said the numerous sexual abuse accusations lodged by former students against St. Paul's staffers made for a "confusing" situation. He said he suspected some might have invented tales of abuse in the hopes of monetary gain. But when it came to Suttmiller, he said, there were no doubts.
"Father Francis definitely had a history of stepping over the boundaries," Hillenbrand said, without elaborating.
Hillenbrand said he never reported Suttmiller to police because the priest had already died by the time the sexual abuse allegations against him surfaced.
Former student Honke, now aged 71 and living in Nebraska, likewise confirmed the authenticity of that letter. A member of the same school class as Dubourt's now-deceased younger sister Louise, Honke is not Native American. She said she attended St. Paul's from 1957 to 1969 because her father owned a general store on school grounds. She said she didn't assist the nine sisters with their case and has never spoken with them about any alleged abuse. She hasn't been a party to any of the civil lawsuits claiming sexual abuse at St. Paul's.
Honke said she and her husband Richard contacted the Sioux Falls diocese sometime in the early 2000s to tell them she had been abused by Suttmiller. Honke says she did so because she was stirred by news of the lawsuits that former St. Paul's students had begun filing. She said she wanted to make the diocese aware of her experience and show solidarity with the Native American plaintiffs.
"I'm not Indian, but I lived with them all my life, first grade through 12th," Honke said. "I'm just trying to put my voice out for them, because they're telling the truth."
The diocese declined to answer questions about Honke's allegations against Suttmiller.
A circuit court dismissed the Charbonneau sisters' suit in 2011 and it never advanced to trial. As part of its ruling, the court cited South Dakota's 2010 legislation limiting civil actions for childhood sexual abuse victims aged 40 and older. The court determined that amendment applied retroactively to cases filed prior to 2010.
South Dakota's Supreme Court disagreed with that interpretation. Nevertheless, in a pair of 2012 rulings, it affirmed the dismissal of the sisters' lawsuit and nine similar civil cases filed by Native Americans who had attended St. Paul's. The high court said the former students had failed to prove that the Sioux Falls diocese bore any liability for their alleged abuse, in part because there was no evidence that anyone from the diocese had ever been an officer, director or employee of the nonprofit that ran the school. It did not rule as to whether any abuse did, in fact, take place.
Reuters examined the 1954 articles of incorporation of that nonprofit: Saint Paul's Indian Mission. They state its purpose was caring for Native American children "under the rules and regulations of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, South Dakota." The document further states that the nonprofit's purpose was to missionize and teach Native Americans in the localities designated by the bishop in Sioux Falls.
In a May 27 statement to Reuters, the diocese said child sexual abuse "is abhorrent and never to be tolerated." The diocese encouraged those harmed to seek out law enforcement and to notify the diocese, which has set up a third-party Victims Assistance Coordinator to "facilitate and provide support." It said the diocese has put programs and procedures in place "to maintain safe environments in our parishes and institutions." It did not elaborate. The diocese did not respond to questions about the cases of Dubourt and other boarding school plaintiffs, including their allegations of abuse, nor did it respond to requests to interview its Victims Assistance Coordinator.
It's not the first time the Native American plaintiffs say the diocese has been silent about their allegations. In March 2019, then-Bishop Paul J. Swain, head of the Sioux Falls diocese, released a public statement naming 11 priests that the diocese found to have sexually abused minors. The statement said the abuse happened between 1958 and 1992, and that nine of those priests were deceased. The other two had been removed from public ministry, the statement said. Swain said he had met with some adult victims of this abuse and that "their pain is real and challenged me personally."
Absent from the list of alleged predators, however, were Suttmiller and other Benedictine priests named as defendants in the civil lawsuits filed by former students of the old St. Paul's Indian Mission School. Swain in his statement made it clear that priests belonging to any religious order were not the diocese's responsibility.
"Any allegations against any of them must be forwarded to their superiors who have direct oversight over them," the statement said.
Swain retired nine months later in December 2019. He could not be reached for comment.
What has never taken place in a courtroom – and what former student Dubourt says she wants most – is for jurors to get a chance to weigh the evidence and say out loud whether they believe her and her sisters or not.
"Because there was no trial, there is no accountability," Dubourt said. "We don't care if it's the diocese in Sioux Falls or somebody in Rome who answers for all this abuse. But somebody has to be held accountable."
TALLYING SCHOOLS, GRAVES
The United States has only begun to examine the legacy of government-supported boarding schools for Native Americans.
On May 11, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first-ever female Native American cabinet member, released the first volume of her department's promised investigation into this system. It found the federal government operated or subsidized at least 408 such schools across 37 states or then-territories between 1819 and 1969. The overarching goal, the report said, was to train indigenous children as laborers and speed their assimilation into broader society, making it easier for the government to continue accumulating former tribal lands for white settlement.
Native American youngsters were separated from their parents, obliged to speak English and mimic Anglo ways. The Interior Department report didn't say how many children were affected, but scholars have estimated it's in the hundreds of thousands. Churches that ran about half of the schools often required children to convert to Christianity, according to the report. The document cited "rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse" at the nation's Indian boarding schools.
The government so far has identified burial sites at 53 of those schools, both marked and unmarked. Over 500 children died while attending just 19 of the schools whose records were examined, according to the report, which estimates the number of deaths may reach "thousands or tens of thousands" as the investigation continues.
The Interior Department probe has stirred hope among some Native Americans for a reckoning like that seen in Canada, which supported a similar boarding school system for indigenous children.
A class-action settlement agreement that went into effect in 2007 established a multi-billion-dollar fund to assist tens of thousands of former students, whom Canada has admitted were subjected to widespread abuses, including physical and sexual assault. Canada also issued a formal apology and formed a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to document the experiences of residential school survivors. In April, Pope Francis hosted indigenous leaders from Canada for talks and issued an apology for the role individual Catholics played. The pope is in Canada this week for what he has called a "pilgrimage of penance" to help heal the wrongs done to indigenous children by priests and nuns who ran abusive residential schools.
In the United States, meanwhile, laws like those in South Dakota underscore the challenges Native Americans face in trying to secure judgments against those who oversaw U.S. boarding schools.
Reuters reviewed the civil lawsuits of Dubourt, her sisters and 99 other now-elderly former students of St. Paul's that were filed between 2003 and 2010. Listed as defendants were their alleged former abusers - all now deceased - the religious orders to which these priests and nuns belonged, and the Sioux Falls diocese.
None of those Native American plaintiffs prevailed, and the legal path for similar claims has only grown more difficult.
The 2010 South Dakota statute shortening the time period for filing sexual abuse civil lawsuits originated as a "constituent bill" - legislation that is pitched by a citizen who isn't a lawmaker. It was written by South Dakota attorney Steve Smith. He has successfully defended the Congregation of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, a Catholic clerical religious congregation that runs the St. Joseph's Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, in lawsuits filed by Native Americans who claim they were sexually abused there as students. The organization has denied wrongdoing.
Smith told Reuters those cases motivated him to draft the constituent bill in the hopes of shielding his clients from future litigation. South Dakota's Republican-dominated state legislature approved the measure by a wide margin.
Sitting in his wood-paneled office in the picturesque Missouri River town of Chamberlain, South Dakota, Smith said he had no doubt that Dubourt and her eight sisters were harmed at St. Paul's. He acknowledged they have not gotten justice.
"I absolutely believe that those nine little girls…were abused while at that school," he said. "I have never disputed that fact whatsoever."
Still, he said individual perpetrators, not religious institutions, should be the ones held accountable. On the whole, he's happy that his law has given the Catholic Church "some kind of peace and quiet."
Former state Representative Steve Hickey, a Republican, in 2012 tried to have South Dakota's law repealed. He told Reuters he's angry and disgusted with his colleagues and the state's Republican leadership, but is not surprised in a rural state that's solidly conservative and 85% white.
"Underlying all of this is entrenched racism," Hickey said.
Efforts to repeal the 2010 law have been repeatedly blocked by legislators in the state's House Judiciary Committee. Representative Jon Hansen, a Republican and chair of that committee, and Mike Stevens, a Republican and vice-chair of the committee, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Dan Lederman, chairman of the state's Republican Party.
Lightning streaked across the midnight prairie sky, illuminating thunderheads hovering above the wide Missouri River, which meanders through the hills three miles to the west of the community of Marty.
Inside a pitch-dark sweat lodge in September, Glenn Drapeau called on ancestor warriors for strength. He sprinkled water on glowing hot stones, creating the steam that many Native Americans believe purifies, awakens, brings about a rebirth and puts them in touch with their Creator.
One by one, a dozen people in the lodge spoke about concerns on their minds or asked for blessings for themselves or their families. Last to speak was Drapeau, of the Ihanktonwan Dakota peoples, who lives on the Yankton Indian Reservation. He lamented the struggle of boarding school survivors to obtain justice, including his own deceased father, Galen, who attended St. Paul's and was among those whose civil suits failed.
"We pray our elders' truth will be known," Drapeau said, weeping in the darkness.
In the 1970s, St. Paul's changed its name to the Marty Indian School, and control passed to the Yankton Sioux Tribe. The old campus was abandoned for new facilities built right across the road, though students who board still sleep in a couple of the old buildings. Drapeau directs the Dakota Language Department there, where he pushes his students to embrace their culture.
But the damage lives on. Drapeau and other Native Americans say the old boarding school system was among the root causes for the ills that plague their people today: high rates of violence and addiction, the loss of tribal identity and language. Having multiple generations raised with no parental figures has decimated the culture, they say. More than half of Marty's roughly 300 residents fall below the poverty line.
THE PAST IS STILL PRESENT
Dubourt, one of the 9 Little Girls, asked an old schoolmate and friend, Julia Gonzalez, to accompany her in showing a visiting reporter around the crumbling grounds of the old St. Paul's boarding school.
The pair moved slowly between the buildings, many in a dangerous state of decay. Sometimes they laughed recalling a funny memory. At times they wept.
Gonzalez, 64, in 2003 was part of a $25-billion class-action civil lawsuit filed on behalf of tens of thousands of former Indian boarding school students against the federal government seeking damages for physical, sexual and mental abuse they claim they suffered at those institutions. A federal judge dismissed that lawsuit a year later, stating it did not follow procedures laid out in an 1868 treaty between the government and Native American tribes, and that plaintiffs must first take their complaints to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
They didn't pursue their claims against the federal government.
While some plaintiffs went on to file unsuccessful civil cases in South Dakota state court, Gonzalez didn't bother.
Taking Dubourt by the arm, Gonzalez said her idea of justice has narrowed. She said she'd now settle for this history simply to be acknowledged outside Indian Country.
"Having somebody really listen to us about what happened, that would be a type of justice for me," said Gonzalez, who lives near Marty. "I would like to see people open their minds and see what happened to us."
The Wider Image
Photography: Callaghan O'Hare
Reporting: Brad Brooks
Photo editing: Kezia Levitas and Eve Watling
Text editing: Marla Dickerson and Donna Bryson
Design: Marta Montana Gomez and Eve Watling