South Dakota man seeks to continue school abuse lawsuit

By Chet Brokaw
Pierre, South Dakota (AP) October 2011

A man who alleges he was sexually abused decades ago at St. Paul’s Indian School in Marty has asked the South Dakota Supreme Court to let him continue his lawsuit against the religious organizations that ran the school.

A circuit judge threw out the case, ruling that D.Z. Iron Wing waited too long to file the lawsuit because he knew of injuries caused by the alleged abuse more than three years before he took legal action.

Iron Wing’s lawyer, Michael Shubeck of Rapid City, said the lawsuit should be reinstated so a trial could determine whether Iron Wing only recently discovered that the alleged abuse had caused him some injuries.

But lawyers representing the religious organizations that previously operated the boarding school said Iron Wing waited too long to go to court because he has acknowledged that he never forgot the alleged abuse and knew it caused him to be angry and hate the religious organizations.

The Supreme Court’s hearing at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell was broadcast through the court’s website. The court will issue a written decision later.

At issue is a state law that requires a lawsuit seeking damages for childhood sexual abuse to be filed within three years of the alleged abuse or within three years of the time the victim discovered or should have discovered an injury was caused by the abuse.

Iron Wing filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls, Blue Cloud Abbey, the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and a nun and a priest he alleged abused him when he attended the school in 1953-1964. The religious organizations ran the school for decades, but the school has since been transferred to control of the Yankton Sioux Tribe. Lawyers said the nun and the priest accused of the abuse have died.

Iron Wing, 64, said in a deposition that the sexual abuse caused him anger and hatred toward the Catholic Church, nuns and priests.

Dozens of similar lawsuits alleging sexual abuse at Indian boarding schools in South Dakota have been filed, but most have been dismissed after judges found the former students waited too long to go to court.

Circuit Judge Bradley Zell threw out Iron Wing’s lawsuit after ruling that Iron Wing had always remembered the abuse and knew of his hatred of the religious organizations. The judge said Iron Wing waited too long to sue because he should sought to discover the cause of his hatred more than three years before he went to court.

However, Shubeck said a psychologist found that Iron Wing’s anger was just a way to cope with a broader range of injuries that he did not discover until recently. A jury or judge should decide in a trial whether Iron Wing should have discovered earlier any connection between the alleged abuse and his injuries, he said.

A trial would look into how a reasonable person would respond to such abuse, Shubeck said.

“We have agents of God, we have direct representatives of God that are doing this to a child,” Shubeck said.

But Michael J. Ford of St. Cloud, Minn., a lawyer for the Oblate Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, said there is no proof that the alleged sexual abuse ever happened. The time limit for filing such lawsuits was put in law because of the difficulty of trying lawsuits when most witnesses are dead, he said.

Ford and lawyers for the other religious organizations said Iron Wing testified in a deposition that his injuries from the alleged abuse were lifelong hatred and anger toward nuns, priests and the religious organizations. That meant he filed his lawsuit far more than three years after he discovered an injury was caused by the alleged abuse, they said.

“He never forgot about the abuse, and he always felt the anger and hatred that abuse caused,” said Rochelle Sweetman of Sioux Falls, a lawyer for the Catholic Diocese.