For now, the Catholic Church in South Dakota—along with schools, religious orders and other churches and institutions—appears to be off the hook for sexual abuse that Native Americans say they suffered while attending Church-run boarding schools during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. On February 18, the state legislature’s Senate Judiciary Committee listened to statements for and against Senate Bill 130, which was intended to give their day in court to Native victims who’d had their lawsuits against the Church terminated after legislative action in 2010.
The 45-minute hearing pitted the survivors, all non-lawyers, against Catholic and Lutheran church attorneys. The committee chairman then requested that the victims produce legal documents they hadn’t been forewarned they’d need to show. Finally, the members voted 5-2 to kill the measure, while noting that they opposed sexual abuse of children and “felt for” the victims.
One of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Troy Heinert, Rosebud Sioux, said he will talk to the survivors who came forward and to South Dakota’s House Judiciary Committee to see what options lie ahead. “I truly believe the survivors still have support. We’ve got to keep this issue moving, because a lot of people haven’t received justice.”
This is the second time the South Dakota legislature failed to remedy a 2010 bill that let institutions off the hook for abuse once the victim had turned 40; the first attempt was in 2012. The 2010 law, written by a Catholic Church lawyer, was passed after scores of middle-aged and elderly Native Americans sued the Church and individual perpetrators under the childhood-sexual-abuse statute of limitations in existence at the time.
“So many plaintiffs had come forward by 2010, the legislature was in panic mode,” said Heinert. “It passed a law that doesn’t allow for nuances among the cases.”
Going into the meeting, some victims’ supporters criticized the bill’s draft language and claimed the measure, if passed into law, could have been construed to mean the opposite of what was intended. Speaking on background, an official of the legislature’s research council, which wrote the bill, admitted to ICTMN that it could have been better crafted.
“We have to get the wording right,” said Robert Brancato, certified fraud examiner and head of the South Dakota chapter of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. “Many states have done this. If you bring this legislature a good bill, you will have a chance.”
“Turning support for an issue into something the legislature can vote on is the job,” said Heinert.
During the meeting, one survivor recounted abuse as a student at what was then St. Paul’s Indian Mission, in Marty, South Dakota. “If you knew what happened to us you’d be appalled. I was raped, and they murdered my baby. We have to tell today’s children, ‘we will stand by you; when someone does this to you, you are not to blame.’”
She drew a parallel to historical events. “The only thing different from what happened to the Jews was that they didn’t turn on the gas. Though some days, I wished they had.”
“The Church and its employees were—and are—merciless,” said Ken Bear Chief, a Gros Ventre/Nez Perce/Nooksak paralegal and investigator with Tamaki Law Firm, in Washington State. “Native American survivors of childhood sexual abuse can’t get justice in South Dakota.”
However, they have an alternative, said Bear Chief. “Regardless of the South Dakota legislature’s actions, tribes in the state can craft their own legal codes to extend statutes of limitations, allowing survivors to sue in tribal court, which is part of the federal court system. Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate has done this, and the Rosebud Sioux Tribe is currently considering such action.”